Associate Editor Victoria Greenwald attended the Interfaith Leadership Institute 2017.
“Hi, my name is Prerna, and I’m a first generation American secular Hindu queer woman of color.”
“And I’m Hannah. I’m Catholic.”
From the first moments, the Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI), which took place last weekend (Jan. 27-29) in Atlanta, emphasized the importance of building relationships across divisive lines. Prerna Abbi and Hannah Minks, our two hosts for the weekend, openly discussed their religious differences and resulting friendship before leading all 300 attending students and faculty in a resounding chant of, “Bigotry, bad. Interfaith, good!”
The conference, hosted by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), equips students from colleges across the country to provide spaces for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Interfaith cooperation means people from different belief systems — religious or nonreligious — find shared values and work together for a common good. It’s not about who’s right, but rather about overcoming difference to work with the neighbor and make positive change in the community.
“Interfaith” can give the impression that all faiths agree, but, in fact, I disagreed with a variety of theological points from people of other religions. But that doesn’t preclude my ability to see him or her as another human made in Imago Dei. Interfaith isn’t syncretism, it’s about engaging in dialogue across religious lines. The Record sent me here to understand how we can relate to people so profoundly different.
The process of becoming a great interfaith leader, according to IFYC, is summed up in three verbs: voice, engage and act.
“Religious people don’t have any self-confidence, so they rely on religion to have something to believe in,” one leader said about how he’s heard believers of any faith described.
We spent the first day examining stories, our own and our culture’s. What is the narrative that we’re entering into and how does that narrative shape who we believe ourselves to be?
A Christian voiced the perceived narrative that religion and logic can’t go together. As a Christian, this claim wasn’t new to me, but I noticed as two Hindus nodded their heads, and a Muslim woman agreed: “Yeah, I’ve heard people say that religious people don’t believe in science or facts.”
We painted the Western picture of religion in broad strokes, noting the general distaste for religion and potential hostility towards non-Christians.
Then we turned from the narrative we operate in to our individual stories. “Please only use “I” statements — we don’t expect you to speak for your entire tradition,” one of the staff members instructed. As someone who’s used to speaking corporately in chapel and church confessions of faith, I found it difficult to talk about myself as separate from the whole body of believers.
Mimi, a Malian Muslim attending college here in the U.S., told her story of how isolated she felt as the only Muslim in her new American culture during the celebration of Eid, but how she found friendship and support in the Jewish community on her campus. Although the Jews and Mimi had truth claims that excluded the other, they welcomed her into their space as a place of refuge and friendship.
As she gestured to a member of her campus’ Jewish community also attending the conference, her wide smile showed how powerful overlapping narratives can be.
The time spent honing our stories was put to good use on the second day when we began dialoguing about our different faiths and worldviews.
We started the day with “speed-faithing,” when staff members from a wide array of faith or non-faith traditions told their stories. I spent the morning travelling from room to room, listening to the moral practices of a secular Hindu, the devotion and community of two Muslim women and the enthusiasm of a young Mormon man.
The common theme in all of their stories was a deep love for people, family, community and a passion for justice.
We spent the afternoon engaging in hard conversations. We walked back into our training space, where 20 of the 300 of us gathered to learn together, to find a poster labeled “bias” in red block letters hanging on the wall. There were nervous glances and half-hearted jokes passed, but we knew the pain that was in the room and now we had to face it head on.
The activity seemed simple enough: anonymously post biases, then reflect on the biases. Then we would end with a counter-story of an experience that goes against the posted biases.
I wish it had taken longer for people to come up with prejudices and stereotypes. I wish I could say that the bias wall carried only easily debunked and outdated tropes. But rather, we stood in somber silence, reading the thoughts of our peers:
“Christians think I’m going to hell, and that hurts.”
“I am more enlightened than people who voted for Donald Trump.”
“Christianity isn’t for black or brown people.”
“People who side with Palestine over Israel are bigots.”
Everyone in the room carried hurt and anger, and, unfortunately, a perception of Evangelicals caused some of that hurt. My heart grew heavy, not because I was offended by any of the statements against Christians, but because I couldn’t fight against them. I longed to say that Christ is for all people, that he stands for love and not hate — but for every counter-story I could find, I could provide twice as many narratives that reaffirm their biases. I wasn’t alone in this — the other Christians in the room, other members of the body of Christ, remained silent as well, unable to jump to the defense of the Church.
Throughout the weekend, however, it was through my conversations with other leaders — particularly the non-Christians — about why I believe in interfaith dialogue that, hopefully, began to heal some of the wounds inflicted by the Church.
This is what it looks like when stories collide. Understanding each other isn’t easy, but as we worked through on the first day, “Our stories must rewrite the dominant narrative,” and, according to our own bias wall, that narrative is fear, silence and anger.
On our first night, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, Eboo Patel, hosted a conversation with us. He opened with a quote from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, RI: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — and there shall be none to make him afraid.” From the dawn of this nation, he reminded us, there has been a movement of interfaith work, a “magnificent legacy” to uphold.
He often returned to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of strength in the face of a culture that did not want to change. Patel recounts a march King led in Chicago 1966: while marching amidst bitter insults and slurs, he was hit in the back of the head with a brick. He fell, got up and kept marching.
An onlooker, named Carol Moseley Braun, watched Dr. King throughout the march and noted the lack of hatred on his face. She was convinced, then, to join the movement, and decades later went on to be the first African-American female senator of the United States.
This account tells us two things about interfaith work, Patel said. The first is that, “social change is the art of persuasion; insults don’t incite change.” Calling others bigots never solved the problem; rather convince, often through storytelling, the opponent to change his or her mind.
The second strategy we gain from King’s march is to, in Patel’s words, “think about the day after the day after.” Powerful movements understand that change takes time, and are willing to think 10 or 20 years ahead. The most powerful change that arose from King’s march on Chicago in 1966 was influencing a future leader for the cause, Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who didn’t take office until 1993, almost 30 years later.
“Yes, a part of this is cosmic,” Patel said of the interfaith movement. “But part of this is plain strategy. We will not exclude people along the way.” For Evangelicals, this means that we understand that Christ is moving in his world today, but also that we are the active hands and feet of our Head — there’s societal work to be done: the widow, orphan and sojourner to be taken care of, and it would be counterproductive not to band with others who desire the same social change.
To end his discussion, Patel brought interfaith work back to the present, referring to this time in history as a, “Molten moment in America.” We are somewhere between being and becoming, he said; how the next 10 or 20 years look is based on knowing our own stories, respectfully engaging with others in their stories and working together to shape the future. “We are a nation of welcome. We make it holy by how we interact with one another.”