Pluralism is defined by the Global Centre of Pluralism as “an ethic of respect for diversity. Whereas diversity is a fact, pluralism is a choice.” Pluralism is necessary for peace and prosperity, and religious pluralism recognizes that individuals derive their values from various faith traditions, spiritual practices, and other moral teachings.
Following the lead of the City of Los Angeles, which has hosted an annual Day of Religious Pluralism since 2015, civic and religious leaders gathered at the Atlanta City Hall to celebrate Atlanta’s first Day of Religious Pluralism. They united in dialogue and action on the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, to bring to life Dr. King’s vision for a “beloved community”.
Atlanta’s Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, issued a letter of support for the Day of Religious Pluralism, stating that “diversity is our greatest strength in Atlanta…Celebrating and engaging with Atlanta’s diversity through a multi-faith lens unites and deepens our understanding of each other”.
In attendance was Reverend Dr. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and a friend of Dr. King. Rev. Vivian was recognized for his contributions and he said, “The greatest force in history is love. When you love, you go beyond all other conversations.”
The Aga Khan Council for the Southeastern United States sponsored this celebration of religious pluralism, with President Murad Abdullah welcoming attendees on behalf of the Host Committee, which consisted of a diverse group of religious and civic leaders.
President Abdullah acknowledged the historic role played by the city’s religious leaders in promoting civil liberties and said: “While much has been accomplished, new challenges arise daily as Atlanta, like many other cities around the world, is becoming increasingly more diverse.” He challenged the audience to find commonality in their shared values and “work in unison towards not just religious pluralism, but all forms of equity.”
Bill Bolling, Founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank and Food Well Alliance, and Host Committee member said, “For Atlanta, this Day of Religious Pluralism represents our values and our identity. Let’s take Dr. King’s teachings to call us to unity, to call us to have a voice in the community, and to call us out of our cynicisms into a belief that together we can make a better world.”
The event’s theme, “Beauty in Harmony,” featured faith-inspired visual and performing arts by local artists.
“The theme of ‘Beauty in Harmony’ is brilliant,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, adding, “Something that is so universal as dance, music, and art is a great way to bring us all together and show our unity.”
Rabbi Berg’s thoughts echoed Mawlana Hazar Imam’s sentiments at the 2019 Aga Khan Music Awards, where he said:
“Every individual can respond to art and music, whether it emanates from a different culture or not. For, after all, art is a matter of humanity just as much as it is a matter of identity. As the Islamic tradition has reminded us for many centuries, the Divine spark that bestows upon us our individuality also bonds individuals in a common human family. In this light, we learn to see our differences in a new way. We can understand that cultural diversity is not a burden or a threat. In fact, it is rather a Divine Gift, an opportunity to learn and to grow, an opportunity to understand and to appreciate the identity of the Other and, thereby, one’s own essential identity.”
One of the curators of the visual art gallery, Ashley Woods of the Nobel Prize Museum remarked, “My faith lies in humanity, and I think art is the best expression of humanity.” Woods elaborated on a painting titled ‘Sun Light,’ by Alexi Torres, an immigrant from Cuba. He explained that in this painting of a boy’s face, the artist uses his paintbrush in a multi-layered basket weaving technique to show that “we are all woven together…sunlight rays down on all of us regardless of our religion or background. We are all connected by the light that shines on us and within each one of us.”
The audience experienced a variety of artistic presentations including Buddhist chants, Qur’anic recitations, classical Bharatanatyam dance, and music and songs with roots in Christian and Judaic traditions.
One of the performances was by a poet, singer, and cellist trio. The group performed an impromptu, synergized presentation using the experiences, thoughts, and energy of the gathered audience. Cellist Okorie Johnson said, “We live in a world where religion and spirit are often used to create wedges and be divisive. The Day of Religious Pluralism is powerful because it forces us to find commonalities across religion, spirit, and faith.”
Poet, songwriter, and minister Tavares Stephens commented, “Religious Pluralism means creating a space where everyone can thrive and have their faith and humanity honored, and where we can also recognize beauty in diversity. If you think about a song, if all the notes were the same, it would be a boring artistic expression. It is the variations, that gradation, those nuances, that movement that really make life an abundant expression of grace.”
The event concluded with a Civic Dinner, inspiring participants to engage in conversations and take action in promoting religious pluralism. Attendees committed to taking at least one step to make Atlanta more welcoming and inclusive, and to replace ignorance and fear with friendship, understanding, and hope. These steps will be included in the “100 Ways to Embrace Pluralism” report.
Doug Shipman, President and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, and Host Committee member said, “Religious Pluralism is the ability for people to be their authentic selves, not just in their personal lives, but also when they are out in the community. Tonight’s gathering felt like the world we want to see every day. It felt like our aspirations. The artistic presentations and the people gathered here created a spiritual experience that does not happen often.”
In discussing the takeaways from the Day of Religious Pluralism, Mr. Shipman said, “We need to put ourselves into spaces that are unfamiliar and new and take the time to absorb. We need to create the space to have those moments to learn and understand others.”
Reverend Dr. Gerald Durley of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church and a Host Committee member echoed a familiar Christian concept that “Faith without works is dead. We have entered here to learn from one another, now let’s leave with a purpose to serve humanity.”
The evening resulted in a number of outcomes including the establishment of a “Religious Pluralism” Civic Dinner conversation topic and questions. Civic Dinners aim to “transform dinner tables into forums for social change” allowing individuals to host their own “religious pluralism” dinner conversations.
The Day of Religious Pluralism is a platform for bringing together diverse faith and non-faith communities to connect on shared values and promote social cohesion and civic engagement. The hope is that other cities and communities across the United States and around the world will join Atlanta and Los Angeles in this initiative of religious pluralism, and help replace ignorance and fear of our differences with understanding and hope.