Inside the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond on Blanton Avenue, the air is thick with the smell of curry and coriander as Richmonders gather for dinner on a cold Friday night in November. The fold-out table at the front of the room is crowded with bowls of basmati rice, falafel, hummus and curry dishes. This increasingly popular gathering is known as a Curry for Peace potluck.
"You get some decent food [and] you get a chance to talk with people who are different than you in a nonthreatening situation," says Andrew Ragland, who started a Facebook group that organizes the potlucks every month. "It's harder to hate someone if you've broken bread with them."
By the end of the dinner, which draws about 18 Richmond residents, they are mingling easily over coffee and Indian ice cream, known as kulfi. "What came through loud and clear is the similarities between all religions," says Ned Haley, Unitarian Universalist church member. "We still have a lot more in common than we have differences, and that's to be celebrated."
Ragland started Curry for Peace after reading about a North Texas apartment complex that denied leases to "curry people" — those who look Middle Eastern or Asian and cook with spices found in curry dishes. Ragland's potlucks — held most every month for a year now — are intended to show solidarity "with curry lovers of all races" and protest "bigotry of any kind," according to his Facebook group, dubbed "I Am Curry People."
Ragland held the first Curry for Peace potlucks in his Henrico home, but as they attracted more participants, he expanded them into the First Unitarian Universalist Church, where he was already a member. There, he built his Curry For Peace ministry, which now has six official members. The potlucks usually attract 10 or 15 more people of varying races and ethnicities. The dinners are small-scale affairs, but it's through many community efforts like these that Richmond residents of different faiths find common ground.
"Our biggest drive is to increase awareness and education," Ragland says. "People tend to fear what they don't know." But now, he says, "I think we've reached a point where people are willing to calm down and talk."
During the potluck, the keynote speaker is Malik Khan, vice president of the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond and past president and board member of the Islamic Center of Virginia. In his presentation, "Intro to Islam and Muslims," he talks about Islamic beliefs and practices. But he also seeks to counteract Muslim stereotypes.
"There are terrorists who happen to be Muslim," Kahn says. "But not all Muslims are terrorists. And that is the point that I want to convey to you tonight."
Born in India, Kahn moved to the United States to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 1988, he relocated to Richmond to work as an engineer for Philip Morris USA. "I really truly consider Richmond to be my home," says Khan, who lives in the city with his wife; his mother and sister-in-law are also Richmond residents. "Home is where you go where they accept you," he says, "and we feel that we have been accepted as Richmonders."
Richmond resident Sharon Clayton works toward a similar goal. She's a founding member of "Discovering Many Faiths," which partners with the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond and the University of Richmond to sponsor a program that meets at the university's Tyler Haynes Commons. It "aims to honor people's sacred beliefs as well as to help listeners to understand the religion from the believers point of view," Clayton says. She adds that it helps people understand how their friends and neighbors practice and believe. She says, "We have built some really intriguing relationships between faiths."
Dee Dee Damschroder is another community leader dedicated to religious tolerance. Ten years ago, Damschroder served as the coordinator of the AFS Intercultural student exchange program in Virginia. In Richmond, Damschroder helped start the Islamic Initiative, a grant that brought Muslim students to America through AFS Intercultural.
"It is very much a learning opportunity for the hosting families, not just for the students," says Damschroder, who hosted two Muslim students from Indonesia and helped coordinate the program in Richmond. "I think that ignorance is a big problem in understanding other cultures and faiths, and it can best be overcome by personal contact with people who are different."