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Sharing Sacred Spaces: How Dallas is Promoting Peace Through Religious Diversity

“Space” has many meanings—it can refer to the tiny distance between the last letter of one word and the beginning of the next, or to the vast expanse beyond Earth. Even a single room can be described as a “space,” often filled with the latest decorating trends. Some spaces are considered sacred, reserved for worship. While these vary dramatically, each is designed with intention. Dallas has been selected as the location for a unique initiative that merges religious architecture with community engagement, called Sharing Sacred Spaces.

Leadership with a Vision: The Minds Behind Sharing Sacred Spaces

Jacquelyn Block, Nilaya Knafo, Vanessa Avery

Vanessa Avery, the executive director of Sharing Sacred Spaces, brings a unique background to her role. She shares, “My academic background is in comparative religion, world religions, interreligious understanding, and religion and non-violence.” Upon discovering Suzanne Morgan’s work, particularly a program model named Sacred Space and Architecture, Vanessa teamed up with her to expand the program from a local initiative to a national one.

Nilaya Knafo serves as the program officer for the Dallas area. She has a master’s degree in religion from Yale Divinity School and recently served as a senior program assistant at the United States Institute of Peace. From a young age, she was interested in languages, growing up in a household where French was spoken, and studying Spanish and Hebrew. She aimed for fluency in Arabic to further explore the coexistence of religious groups in the Middle East. During a language program in Tajikistan, she was the first American encountered by many of the students.

The Program: Fostering Unity Through Shared Sacred Spaces

A well-designed program is key to the success of Sharing Sacred Spaces. Although communities differ geographically, six simple guidelines help promote unity through shared expectations. A select group of participants first tours the physical worship space, learns about the community’s history, and is introduced to the religion. Members then share their thoughts and engage in a dialogue or activity, concluding their visit with a light meal.

Vanessa envisions a world where religious differences become a leverage for peace, where people of all faiths welcome each other with warmth and grace, and where an interfaith reservoir of friendship and trust serves as a bulwark against the world’s ills through mutual understanding, support, and protection.

Building a Community Through Transformational Encounters

In February 2023, Nilaya began one-on-one meetings with over 70 interfaith leaders to form a steering committee. Sixteen of them met in Dallas in May 2023 to address the city’s challenges, focusing on recommendations like bridging the north-south divide, understanding local communal histories, and emphasizing the humanization of the entire area. Sharing Sacred Spaces aims to “build community through transformational encounters,” not just by visiting different buildings.

After identifying local objectives, the first step involves inviting participants to what SSS refers to as the Interreligious Communities Project. This group recently met at Thanks-Giving Square for introductions. Among them, Sonia Pahcheka from the Dallas Indian Mission United Methodist Church, who is Comanche and enjoys teaching Native American dances, and Farnoosh (Faith) Nouri from the Schools of Islamic Sufism. Dr. Nouri, an assistant professor at SMU, a practicing psychotherapist, and a Sufi meditation instructor, represents the diversity within the program.

Mary Ann Taylor, a representative from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been appointed Convener for the Interfaith Council of Thanks-Giving Square. She expresses, “It’s an honor to work in interfaith at any level, and I’m excited about the potential to revitalize this group.” In her opening message, she highlighted that her experience has taught her many languages—not the foreign ones learned by Naliya—but those of love, grief, joy, disappointment, fear, cancer, conversion, and gratitude, in all circumstances.

The Dallas participants of this promising program will begin their journey in September 2024.

Featured Image: Rabbi Shira Wallach, Erik Egan, Jacquelyn Block, Bruce Jensen, Sonia Pahcheka, Dr. Vanessa Avery, Mary Ann Taylor, Kyle Ogden, Don Robinson, Meredith Smith Sonneborn, Dr. Farnoosh (Faith) Nouri, Frank Nouri.