In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Dave Corby's first reaction was "to be mad at them - which in my mind was Muslims."
After thinking it over, however, he came to the conclusion that "it was pretty stupid of me because I didn't know any Muslims."
That realization was among several factors that inspired Mr. Corby to start Common Tables, a nonprofit, nondenominational group based in Denver, Colo. Its mission is to bring people of different religious traditions together to share meals in relaxed settings, usually someone's home, in order to build better relationships and help diverse groups live in harmony.
The organization was founded last April, went online in May, and has had more than 300 people enrolled so far. Its ambitious goal, however, is to enlist 3 million participants worldwide within a year.
"We've had inquiries from 86 or 87 countries," said Sandy Sommers, one of the co-founders. "It's amazing how this idea just took off."
In Toledo, a similar program called Tables of 8 is being run by the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio, with about 30 people from five religious traditions participating so far.
"Many activities on an interfaith level are pretty programmed," said Judy Lee Trautman, co-founder of the MultiFaith Council. "This is informal, people getting to know each other as people. It's a good way to break stereotypes."
She said she hopes Common Tables reaches its goal of 3 million participants because "if we can reach a critical mass, we can really make a difference."
Ms. Sommers said Common Tables' leaders seek to work with more interfaith groups.
"We're not advocating that we're doing this better than anybody else," she said. "We're doing this in conjunction with other interfaith groups and any way we can grow and benefit from other people's experiences, we're all for it."
Common Tables' members, who join either as individuals or couples, pay $25 a year. Mr. Corby said the fee helps cover administrative costs and also creates a sense of commitment among participants.
Members range in age from early 20s to 93, he added, and come from a diverse range of religious traditions.
Among the faiths represented so far are various Christian denominations, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, neo-pagans, pantheists, agnostics, and atheists, Ms. Sommers said.
Most of the members are laypersons, not ordained clergy, she added, although clergy are welcome to join.
"We wanted people to share at the grassroots level," Ms. Sommers said.
Mr. Corby said in many interfaith settings, the leaders do all the talking and laypersons sit back and listen. "One of the points that really differentiates us from other organizations is that we're all about dialogue," he said.
Common Tables matches up small groups, usually four people, from different faith groups who live in the same geographic area and ask them to schedule four meals in a six-month period.
Some of the pairings are based on specific requests, such as someone who would like to meet with an adherent of an Eastern religion, Mr. Corby said.
The groups typically start out in a coffee shop or other public place, both to break the ice and to lay the ground rules on dietary restrictions, religious preferences on alcohol, etc.
"They meet at a neutral territory, introduce each other, bring a calendar, and schedule one or two or three meetings," Mr. Corby said. "The idea is that a lot of people aren't comfortable showing up at a stranger's home, and a lot of people aren't comfortable bringing strangers into their house."
Common Tables provides forms for dietary checklists and discussion questions to help the dialogue get rolling.
Mr. Corby said, however, that the dinner meetings have "an interesting group dynamic. They quickly determine where they want to go as a group. We prepare them with some icebreaker exercises but, frankly, a large number of groups ignore them and talk about what they want to talk about."
Ms. Sommers said the prepared questions are designed bring up commonalities among religions and to spark constructive discussions about differences.
"We try to steer away from the negatives and focus the questions in a positive way," she said.
There is no pressure to follow a script, however, and there are no facilitators or outcome-based models.
"If you just talk about football, grandchildren, and gardening, that's fine, too. You can walk away just being friends," Ms. Sommers said.
That's not how the dinner meetings generally go, however. Participants are generally can't wait to start talking about religion.
"What we find is that people jump right in and start having the most exciting discussions about their faith," Ms. Sommers said.
There is only one firm rule: No proselytizing.
"That's fundamental to us. We strongly say that," Ms. Sommers said. "And if people violate that, we will talk to them and it could potentially be grounds for removal."
More information on Common Tables is available online at www.commontables.org or by calling 303-690-3900. For information on the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio is available online at multifaithcouncil.org or by calling 419-475-6535.
- David Yonke