Posted on 26 March 2011.
On a Tuesday evening, around 25 people are gathered in a classroom at the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, on the sixth floor or a nondescript building in Manhattan’s Garment District, near Penn Station. They’re studying the Dhammapada, one of the main Buddhist texts. About a dozen students around the world are also in class: via the webcam in one corner of the room.
The seminary offers a two year, part time degree that’s somewhere in between a Masters of Divinity from a traditional theological seminary and one of those instant online ordination certificates through the Universal Life Church.
The altar in the main classroom displays a Christian cross, a Buddha statue, a Jewish Torah scroll, and other religious objects. Reverend David Wallace leads the group. After class, he says the focus tonight was Buddhism, but it’s not always.
“I teach the Upanishads, I teach the Tao, I’ve taught the gospels, I’ve taught a course on the mystics,” Wallace said.
One Spirit is not alone in its approach. Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which is a traditional, historically Christian school, has explored interfaith territory in recent years. Some Union faculty have taken the lead on courses with names like “Buddhist Meditation and the Psyche,” “Christian-Muslim Dialogue,” and “Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations.”
David Wallace says one difference between a school like Union and One Spirit is that his students approach the scriptures less academically.
“Not as scholars, but as people trying to learn what those old messages were,” Wallace said.
One Spirit teaches that openness to different ideas is necessary in a society where faiths have become more blended.
In 2006, a national survey from the University of Chicago found that one in four U.S. households consider themselves mixed faith. Susan Turchin is the director of enrollment at One Spirit, a graduate, and an interfaith minister herself. She says that couples and families are less willing to choose one religion, like Judaism over Christianity or Buddhism. One Spirit grads like her work with a lot of gay and lesbian couples as well, who sometimes feel like outsiders when it comes to traditional religion. She offers wedding and commitment ceremonies custom-tailored to a couple’s spiritual needs.
“So there are several people that are making their living offering those, as well as blessing ceremonies for children that are born into interfaith families,” Turchin said.
She says most ministers keep their day jobs, doing ceremonies on the side. A few graduates have taken full-time positions in traditional congregations, and others are freelance ministers, like Reverend Andrew Harriott, who graduated in 2008.
“I speak at a Church called Sacred Light, volunteer at a home for the aged, I have individual clients from pastoral counseling, I do regular counseling,” Harriott said. “So we have to find a living where we can make a living….Recently we’ve been starting to look at ministry as an industry and as a business.”
One Spirit has enlisted the help of Sandy Fishman, a career consultant for JP Morgan Chase. She helps minsters like Harriott navigate the challenging job market, just like she helped Bear Stearns employees who lost their jobs when their company was absorbed by Chase. Fishman hosted the first One Spirit career panel last August.
“Within the first hour I think forty people signed up,” Fishman said, “because there was a tremendous hunger to come and listen to the people who had graduated, and see what they had done.”
She changed some of the vocabulary for the One Spirit sessions. Instead of “job target,” she talked about “personal vision.” But Fishman is teaching them the same career skills she teaches at corporations– setting goals, interviewing, and networking.