What is Pluralism?

From the 1700s to the middle 1900s, immigrants were assimilated into the dominant culture. As recently as a generation ago, the United States was described as a “melting pot,” and many of us learned that one of the great qualities of this country was that people could come from different countries or walks of life, and blend in with those who had lived here for multiple generations. This blending together into a homogeneous group was valued and thought to strengthen our society.

The concept of “pluralism” broadens our view of integration and assimilation to include recognition of the fact that religious, ethnic, and cultural differences among people can be a source of personal and civic enrichment, and it can infuse vitality into our society. When fostered in the context of openness and understanding, it can overcome fear of the unknown (“the foreigner”) and can encourage people to actively engage with one another as opposed to keeping separate. It encourages people to maintain their cultural and religious differences instead of trying to be the same. It encourages others to be respectful of these differences and supportive of all members of their communities. One analogy sometimes used to describe pluralism is a “tossed salad” as contrasted to the more homogeneous “melting pot.”

Why is SPN Important? The Opportunity in Sharon

Sharon represents a unique opportunity for SPN. Its religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity is home to 18,000 residents, 7 synagogues, 9 churches, one of the largest Islamic Mosques in New England, an Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and over 160 Hindu families. It includes many Russian, Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani families. The Boston Globe (12/26/10) reported that Sharon was identified as the Massachusetts community with the largest percentage of Russian immigrants, estimated at 14.4%. The MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reports that among students in the Sharon Public Schools, 28.3% are non-white and 18.5% speak a language other than English at home. There also continue to be many families of European descent who have lived here for multiple generations, and many residents who are not strongly identified with a specific cultural background or religion. SPN seeks to engage people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

A Brief History of Pluralism in Sharon

The town of Sharon, Massachusetts has a long history of social activism, setting the stage for a community open to pluralism. Before the revolutionary war, Paul Revere was active here, mining iron ore to manufacture cannon balls for the colonists. During the war, Sharon’s very first hero, Deborah Sampson, disguised herself as a man and joined the Continental Army. She served for 17 months as “Robert Shurlieff,” was wounded in 1782 and was honorably discharged in 1783 eventually receiving a veteran’s pension from the U.S. Congress.

During the 20th century, Sharon had an aggressively active “fair housing and equal rights commission,” at least as far back as the 1920s. This group, supported by town clergy and other town leaders, led the effort to bring families of diverse religions, racial, and ethnic backgrounds into the community. By the end of World War II, Sharon had become host to a large number of Jewish families from Boston and Mattapan. In the 1960s, members of the local clergy group actively supported Martin Luther King, Jr.,  accompanying him on trips to the South and to Congress to lobby for civil rights legislation.

In 1965, prior to the inauguration of the METCO Program, Sharon began a summer school camp and educational program bringing African-American students into the community. The Sharon Public Schools joined the METCO Program in 1967 and since that time has supported the integration of METCO students from the Boston area into the community. This action brought an increase in the number of African-American families moving into the community.

In the 1980s and 90s, Father Bullock of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church was an inspiring force in the community – fighting discrimination of all kinds, including that among gays and lesbians. He described Sharon as a “living laboratory” for small town interfaith relations. In the early ‘90s he led the clergy group in extending an invitation to the Islamic Center of New England (ICNE) to build a new center in Sharon.  The successful establishment of Sharon’s ICNE has brought even more diversity to Sharon since the center has members from the Middle East, Pakistan, India, East Asia, and from African-American and Caucasian communities.

Father Bullock is also remembered for inspiring Janet Penn to found Interfaith Action, Inc., now known as Youth LEAD, Inc., to bring teens together to share faith experiences and to plan events which unite our diverse communities in action for the betterment of the town, the nation, and the world. Interfaith Action, Inc. built on the work of David Blocker, a Sharon resident, who brought the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) program “No Place for Hate” to Sharon in the late 1990s.  In 2007, Janet Penn was the founding member of the Sharon Pluralism Network. Originally sponsored by Interfaith Action, the network has since become a separate non-profit in its own right.  Youth LEAD and SPN work closely together sharing events, often by having teen leaders moderate discussion groups with adults.

The clergy group, now called Sharon Interfaith Clergy Association, continues to be a guiding force in the community, meeting monthly, working separately and together to create a safe and peaceful community. The different religious groups have sponsored a variety of outstanding community events, including “Sharing Sacred Seasons.”   The original Sharing Sacred Seasons were sponsored by Temple Israel to bring together the Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim communities to break fast during the two years in which their holiday periods coincided.  In recent years, ICNE has hosted several large Thanksgiving programs along with iftars (Muslim breaking of fast during Ramadan).  The Unitarian Church hosted the 2010 Thanksgiving Day program with a meal at the Congregational Church.   In 2011, Rev. Jim Robinson of the Unitarian Church also initiated the Adult Interfaith Group, with the support of Youth LEAD teens.  This open group meets monthly to learn about and discuss the different religious traditions practiced in Sharon.