RVA Table Talks presents Richmond’s works towards religious inclusivity

Illustration by Julia Gilbert.
Illustration by Julia Gilbert.

Several dozen people gathered in the Virginia Holocaust Museum for a night of discussion surrounding religious identity, the changing American religious landscape and religious inclusivity on Jan. 18.

The event, Religion and Interfaith Understanding, was part of a year-long series sponsored by Altria Group, RVA Table Talk.

Throughout the 2017-18 season, several events focusing on specific topics of class, gender, religion, race and several other similar social discussions will occur in various locations throughout the city.  The intent is to promote understanding between different people of diverse backgrounds. Each event will be hosted by a different group that specializes in the topics being discussed.

The Interfaith Community of Greater Richmond (ICGR) hosted Thursday’s event. The non-profit organization can trace its roots back to the joint Protestant, Catholic and Jewish led organization, The Council of Church Women, which formed in 1929.

Since then, the organization has had several name changes to reflect its growing religious membership and settled on the current name in 1986. This was also a time when Richmond was experiencing the growth of Southeast Asian communities, as well as other ethnic minorities, including the growth of Hindu, Sikh, Baha’i and Buddhist members in the ICGR.

“I haven’t come out to my family exactly to let them know that I don’t identify with the Christian community or any religion for that matter, because I am aware I am risking being cut off from them for a while,” said Rebecca, a graduate student at University of Richmond.  

She said she found support from religious groups and events where there are atheist or agnostic people. Even those who strongly follow a faith are understanding of her beliefs.

The event was discussion based by design: small roundtables with five or six people discussing topics like the difference between religion, belief and spirituality and how one’s background influences religious belief.

“At my table, we discussed the fact that spirituality came as we got older and we had a chance to look at religion outside of the rituals we were taught to do as children,” one attendee said during the brief rounds of open discussion. “None of us ascribe to a strict religious belief but we go to our church or mosques because we found community and spirituality as we got older.”

Highlighted during the event was the the city’s long history in religious diversity.

Sarah Amick AlZubi, vice president of programs for the ICGR, presented research by the American non-profit The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a non-partisan group focusing on quantitative and qualitative research research on the relationship between religion and public policy.

The research released in April 2017 shows America’s youngest and fastest growing religious groups are under 30 years old and are from non-Christian backgrounds. They are mostly Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim where around a third of each group strongly identify with their religious group. At the same time, almost 34 percent of those under 30 who are not religiously affiliated are white Americans who come from Christian backgrounds. Those who strongly identify as Christian are increasingly non-white.

“Twenty-five years ago, nearly nine in ten (87 percent) Catholics were white, non-Hispanic, compared to 55 percent today,” the report states. “ Fewer than four in ten (36 percent) Catholics under the age of 30 are white, non-Hispanic; 52 percent are Hispanic.”

In 2013, the two-decade long Harvard-led religious research initiative called The Pluralism Project focused on Richmond and the metro area as a case study of this trend. AlZubi paraphrased the research to the audience which found that despite racial tensions in the city ,religious openness is traced to the 1786 passing of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Richmond experienced one of the largest growths in the country of Southeast Asian religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism due to the growth the communities in the region throughout the 1980s.

“I always felt at home in Richmond and not because it’s an inclusive city but because I always felt that there is a strong effort to make it religiously open,” an Indonesian attendee of the Baha’i faith said to the group. “I can’t say I’m just accepted by everyone but places like the Interfaith Community and the Virginia Interfaith Center of Public Policy show the hard work to make it there.”

Siona Peterous Staff Writer 

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