By Luke Anderson
Blair Forlaw descended the steps of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church after mass one Sunday earlier this year. She had just learned two things. First, the congregation was welcoming to strangers open to learning about their faith. Second, her visit could have been more meaningful if she had called ahead instead of showing up unannounced.
Forlaw, a member of Shiloh Baptist Church, visited St. Joseph’s with a few friends as part of what she called the “beta phase” of Tour de Faith — a new grassroots initiative designed to promote understanding and acceptance of every religion by touring local faith-based organizations and places of worship over the next year.
Despite the graciousness of St. Joseph’s members, the service was confusing at times for Forlaw and her group since they were unfamiliar with Catholic routines and holy rituals. She knew that in order for Tour de Faith to be effective, it needed to be more involved than just sitting through a service.
In order to make it a fruitful experience, Forlaw has been in communication with facilities on her itinerary, working with them to determine the best time and occasion for a tour. Scheduling also helps regular worshippers to expect and prepare for visitors who may not be familiar with the customs of their particular religion.
For every tour, a guide will meet with visitors before the service or provide reading material explaining certain theologies and holy rituals that might be unfamiliar. By receiving context for each tour, participants can better understand the service, improving the overall educational value.
Tour de Faith launched on Oct. 13 with an informative community meeting at Beatley Central Library. More than 40 people filled the room to learn more about the initiative and listen to speakers, including City of Alexandria demographer Sierra Latham, religious literacy specialist Benjamin Marcus and Bread for the World senior associate and Beulah Baptist’s reverend Angelique Walker-Smith.
“There’s a lot of animosity and distrust and lack of understanding that’s evident in the public discourse today,” Forlaw said. “So we thought maybe people would like to learn how to dialogue with people different from themselves in a productive and civil fashion. […] There’s a real appetite for these kinds of conversations in Alexandria.”
One of the primary “goals of Tour de Faith is growing closer as a community through understanding and fellowship, celebrating both the similarities and the differences of our separate religions,” Marcus said.
People who are knowledgeable of a religion that is not their own tend to have more positive feelings toward adherents of that religion, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year. An equally important objective is exercising the right to religious freedom, the first of five freedoms laid out in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
“Our founding fathers felt very strongly about this,” Forlaw said. “They wrote and they spoke words that express their view that freedom of religion is an inalienable right that belongs to all of us.”
Religious freedom is also important to the City of Alexandria, which released a Statement on Inclusiveness in 2016 that celebrated the diversity within the community and affirmed that it is a “hate-free zone.”
Opal Boyer of the Yavapai-Apache Nation delivered tearful closing remarks at the community launch, highlighting the importance of religious freedom and the detriment that occurs when those freedoms are withheld.
Like many native people, Boyer is unsure of her ancestors’ traditional faith. Before the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, many Native American religions and sacred ceremonies were prohibited by law in an effort to force assimilation. After Boyer spoke, Lance Fisher of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe performed one of his tribe’s prayer songs.
Teisha Garrett was one of 23 people to register for Tour de Faith after the community launch. She said she had heard about Tour de Faith from Forlaw when they met at a conference in D.C. over the summer.
Garrett, who is in the midst of launching her own committee to provide support for various faiths and bring about political action, said she believes these types of events are key to building more inclusive communities.
“Unless you can see it and be a part of it, how else can you have your mind opened?” Garrett said.
In August 2018, Forlaw and Rosa Byrd, a co-member of the Tour de Faith steering committee, organized a session on civil dialogue, facilitated by Sabrina Dent of the Religious Freedom Center in D.C., where Forlaw volunteers. The session followed a format used by the Religious Freedom Center to train people on civil dialogue and allowed attendants to practice engaging in this dialogue through exercises.
Several months later, in January this year, Paul Glist of the Bahá’í faith delivered a keynote address at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Program, also organized by Byrd. The positive community response led to regular small group discussions between residents intent on bridging the racial and religious divide. From these meetings, three commitments were born: expansion of the MLK Memorial Program, formalized Meaningful Conversations About Racism and Tour de Faith.
Not long after hearing Glist speak at the MLK program, Forlaw and her friend Marcia Call attended a Bahá’í interfaith service. The Bahá’ís believe that all religions stem from one source, and they seek unity with God and all of humanity. Moved by the service, Forlaw and Call were emboldened to visit St. Joseph’s, along with Byrd and her husband, to further roadmap the format for Tour de Faith.
Before attending the Catholic mass, Byrd admitted she did not know much about St. Joseph’s but was surprised to see a diverse group of people inside. She described worshippers of multiple races and ethnicities. Other visitors who were announced included a couple from California on vacation and another who had walked in off the street. Everyone was welcome.
Tour de Faith’s first scheduled tour is on Oct. 28 at the Alexandria Bahá’í Center. Tours have been scheduled throughout the rest of the year and include St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Islamic Relief USA, Christ Episcopal Church and Beth El Hebrew Congregation.
Luke Anderson is a freelance writer in Alexandria. He can be reached at [email protected]