Louisville’s Festival of Faiths

The Festival of Faiths began in 1985 when the historic Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, Kentucky, needed repair and a community-wide campaign was launched to raise funds for the work. Those who were involved decided to continue their interfaith efforts even after the cathedral was restored, recognizing the benefits to their city of encouraging dialogue between religious groups.

Opening Fire Ceremony at the 2012 Festival of Faiths in Louisville (Festival of Faiths photo)

Opening Fire Ceremony at the 2012 Festival of Faiths in Louisville (Festival of Faiths photo)

It’s really quite amazing how the Festival of Faiths has grown to become an internationally recognized event that attracts thousands of people. Its goal is to foster interfaith understanding and cooperation, which it does through addresses by visiting speakers, prayer and meditation services, panel discussions, music, art and films. In 1998, it was even commended by the U.S. Senate for its efforts to foster religious tolerance and understanding. Through the years it’s received many requests for information from people around the world who are interested in exploring how the Festival of Faiths model might be developed in their own communities.

The festival is typically held for several consecutive days in November and is sponsored by the Center for Interfaith Relations. Past themes include:

  • Sacred Silence: Pathway to Compassion
  • Faith and Justice
  • Death and Transformation
  • Sacred Water: Sustaining Life
  • Sacred Soil: Foundation of Life
  • Sacred Air: Breath of Life
  • Sacred Fire: Light of Compassion
Sufi Sacred Dance at the 2012 Festival of Faiths (Festival of Faiths photo)

Sufi Sacred Dance at the 2012 Festival of Faiths (Festival of Faiths photo)

The festival begins with an interfaith ceremony and Thanksgiving Service and includes a Children of Abraham Service and Dinner, which celebrates the common spiritual patriarch of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Past speakers have included His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Wendell Berry, Karen Armstrong, Richard Rohr, Matthieu Ricard, Huston Smith, Rowan Williams, and Arjia Rinpoche.

Part of the inspiration for the festival comes from a remarkable meeting that took place in 1968 between the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton (a Trappist monk who lived in Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethsemani). The meeting, which took place when Merton traveled to India, brought together the leading representatives of Eastern and Western contemplative spirituality. The Dalai Lama has said that Thomas Merton was one of the three most influential people in his life (Merton, alas, died just a few weeks after their meeting, but it’s clear that the Dalai Lama also made a deep impression on him). Since that historic meeting, both traditions have benefited from each other in countless ways. Each year the Festival of Faiths deepens those connections even further.

Interfaith dialogue is often held up as an ideal, but it rarely happens at a deep level. I greatly admire the efforts of Louisville to build bridges and increase understanding between religions. The Festival of Faiths is truly a model of how interfaith dialogue can be done. I think Thomas Merton would be pleased to see what has grown from the friendship he struck up with a young monk from Tibet all those years ago.

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