Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Common Tables: Breaking Bread and Boundaries

Here's a project that I think would warm the cockles of any Baha'i heart:

CASTLE ROCK, COLO. -- The four couples were just settling into small talk over appetizers when Kenneth Holloman cleared his throat.

"Would the group permit me to ask an impertinent question?" he said. "How many here believe there's a hell?"

It was not your typical icebreaker.

But then, this was not your typical dinner party.

The couples, strangers to one another, had been brought together by Common Tables, a nonprofit that aims to nurture interfaith friendships. Holloman is an atheist; his wife, a Methodist. Their group included a Jewish couple; a Baptist minister and his wife; and a couple who left the Mormon Church and now belong to a New Age movement called Religious Science.

Common Tables puts together group rosters and asks members to meet for dinner at least four times. Participants can talk about theology or the weather. They can share prayers or photos of their children. Nothing's required. And nothing is off-limits, except proselytizing. The point is simply to reach out, to shake hands with a Buddhist, enjoy a glass of wine with a Wiccan, share laughs with a Sikh or an agnostic or a Jain.

"We're not trying to solve academic or theological problems," said Randy Harris, who co-founded Common Tables last spring in Denver's suburbs.

"We just want to help people realize they can honor and respect each other. They can get along."

Traditionally, interfaith work has been left mostly to religious leaders, who gathered a few times a year for a unity breakfast or panel discussion. Where grass-roots groups existed, they often focused on drawing together diverse congregations for service projects, such as cleaning up a neighborhood park.

Since Sept. 11, however, veteran interfaith activists have noticed a hunger among Americans for more personal, one-on-one connections across religious lines. For many, it began with a desire to meet Muslims, to work past the fear and anger raised by the terrorist attacks. Since then, the movement has broadened. In some cities, parents are even organizing interfaith Sunday schools to teach their children Bahai, Zoroastrian or Greek Orthodox values.

"People know they have to develop the capacity to get out of their comfort zone," said Jill Carroll, executive director of Rice University's Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance.

Harris and his co-founders believe in the concept so passionately, they all quit their jobs to devote themselves to Common Tables. They hope to build a national movement; for now, they're working on calling every house of worship in the greater Denver phone book. So far, they've signed up more than 300 participants and set 20 groups in motion.

There's more to the article, but the Blogger software keeps telling me that the URL is illegal. However, it's a recent story, still being featured on the LA Times Religion page. You can find the organization at, which Blogger won't put through, either.


Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,

The Denver Post carried a similar story late last year - Breaking of bread, barriers.

Back then, Common Tables was so successful in Denver that the four founders had to give up their day jobs to run what amounts to a non-profit firesiding business!

Karen said...

Oops, Steve, I didn't realize you'd already done a piece on Common Tables, on Baha'is Online -- although it did strike me as being just the kind of story you'd like to put on there. Great minds think alike, I guess -- but my mind wasn't so great in the memory department! :-)

Ah, well, it's a good project, and deserves an extra plug.

Love, Karen

Anonymous said...

This is a really great idea. I wonder if I could get it to work in the UK?

Karen said...

Well, Barney, if you'd like to get something started, I'd suggest you contact Common Tables and see how they start this in a new community.
I'm sure they'd be happy to give you more info.

Good luck!

Love, Karen