A Model for Community Interfaith Connection

by Batina Sheets

I wish to share with you some information about a long-standing program of the Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT). This Interfaith group includes the Austin, Texas and surrounding cities area. On a monthly basis, they provide a program which they call “The Red Bench.” I offer this information with the thought that this is a kinship activity that you might easily be able to replicate or adapt to your area.

Several years ago, renowned University of Texas Professor Dr. Betty Sue Flowers recommended that organizations place red benches in public spaces. The idea was simple — by sitting on one of these red benches you were signaling to others that you were open to a conversation that really matters. The red bench is a symbol of a place for conversations that “cultivate peace and respect.”

Inspired by Dr. Flowers’ idea, iACT launched The Red Bench program in 2009 and it has grown into a genuine community of sharing. Each monthly session focuses on ideas and issues that are addressed by all of the great wisdom traditions and “topical” subjects that face the community and nation. Participants are invited to share their faith traditions’ perspective on simple topics such as Grace, Forgiveness, Despair, Charity, etc. Recent topics included Truth & Peace, The Social Contract, and Grief & Loss.

Sessions are held on a rotating basis at various local churches who provide the space, tables, and chairs. Frequently, members of the hosting church provide a simple meal beforehand for which donations are accepted to cover the costs. Participants sit at tables for eight where each table is hosted by a trained volunteer who ensures that conversations are respectful and safe and that all participants have an equal opportunity to contribute to the conversation. Individual participants are invited to share from their personal experiences and listen with their hearts. It is a time of sharing – not attempting to convince or convert. The Red Bench Conversation has provided the Austin area with an ongoing dialogue program designed to address one of the most pressing needs of our time: improving interfaith understanding and civil discourse in our society. It has also served as an emergency instrument to quell tensions in the community that arose from local violence and fears of terrorism.

Creating a “Red Bench” or “Heart Bench” conversation in your local community may be an option and, I’m sure, additional information about the program can be gained from iACT staff at http://interfaithtexas.org/redbench/.

From Batina Sheets

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