By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas
“Everybody thinks we worship the little fat man.”
As a member of the SGI USA Buddhist community, Stephanie faces this stereotype more often than not when questioned about her faith in Omaha, Nebraska.
Her video entry is one hundreds on the new interfaith forum, RavelUnravel, an interactive, multimedia exploration and discussion of spiritual and religious identities that shape individuals as well as communities.
Inviting users to upload their own video and share their opinions and beliefs on their own identity, religion and spirituality, this initiative by Project Interfaith is a creative, modern way to spark interactive learning and respectful dialogue about the diversity and complexity of identities within communities.
Founder and Executive Director, Beth Katz, says RavelUnravel is a “creative, more mainstream way to talk openly and respectfully about the beliefs that shape us.”
“RavelUnravel is less about institutions and more about people. It’s less about labels and more about experiences,” Katz said. “It’s an appreciation of the tremendous diversity of these identity groups and fundamental human experiences that connect us and enrich our ability to connect as human beings.”
Representing a wide range of cultural and spiritual identities from Agnostic and Atheist to and Buddhist and Roman Catholic, participants are asked to talk about their religious or spiritual identity, discuss the stereotypes associated with that identity as well as share their experiences within their community.
Post 9/11, various stereotypes have plagued not only Muslims, but other religions and faiths as well.
“Men [in Sikhism] especially stand out wearing the turban and wearing the beard. But, some people, especially after 9/11, would confuse us with other religions. They think that that maybe you’re Muslim or Arab, or something else” said Manbir in his video entry about Sikhism. “No one should have to face that. No one should be discriminated against because of their religion or how they appear.”
Through the interactive website, Project Interfaith aims to collect these stories and experiences to “unravel and demystify the perceptions and assumptions” that exist about the various religions, spiritualities and beliefs that form different communities.
Started by Katz in 2004, Project Interfaith is a non-profit interfaith organization started and based in Omaha, Nebraska. Starting her interfaith work as co-founder of a student interfaith group at Creighton University, Katz says her hometown was be the perfect test market for her organization.
“Omaha is often a test market for commercial projects so I figured why not for this work as well. If it can happen and be successful in Nebraska, it could happen anywhere,” Katz said.
In July 2010, Project Interfaith launched the Community Mosaic Video Project in Omaha, Nebraska armed with 35 individuals and handheld Flip camcorders to capture 150 videos highlighting the diversity of beliefs and cultures within the community.
After visiting various educational institutions including the University of Nebraska at Omaha and different places of worship, the project boomed with more than 720 video interviews and counting on their website.
As a model for interfaith work and initiatives, Project Interfaith has received numerous accolades since 2010.
The non-profit was awarded a $10,000 Challenge Grant by the Peter Kiewit Foundation and was cited by Harvard University’s Pluralism Project as “the most innovative in the country.” The organization’s founder, Beth Katz, was also honored by US President Obama in the 50 Community Leaders program at the White House.
Katz was also among 23 social entrepreneurs invited to participate in the prestigious Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, a competitive program in England for Jewish and Muslim social entrepreneurs who help improve relations between these religions.
Working the classroom
With the increasing diversity in schools and universities across the nation, Project Interfaith has also sought to tap into the education by developing resources such as ‘educator trunks’, religious diversity guides, curricula and training sessions for educators.
“People feel empowered and vibrant and thrive as communities by breaking open this distorted topic of religion and spirituality,” Katz said. “It is a very heartening tool to help students see these groups beyond a label.”
Starting off as a website, RavelUnravel is just the beginning of Project Interfaith’s successful video initiative. The team kicked off another local road tour on Sunday, July 22, 2012 to collect additional footage for the website and could start a national road tour next year as well “to spark national dialogue and add to the larger library of stories and hub of interfaith learning and communication.”
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