A spiritual calling to interfaith work

This piece was originally published on the Interfaith Youth Core blog at http://www.ifyc.org/content/spiritual-calling-interfaith-work.

Last Thursday night I found myself at the largest interfaith dialogue the University of Illinois has ever seen. Directly north of the iconic Assembly Hall and Memorial Stadium on campus, 600 people packed into a multipurpose room at our beautiful Activities and Recreation Center – the same room where we’ll kick off the Illinois Conference on Interfaith Collaboration in just under a month.

The event, a Muslim-Christian dialogue between academics Zeki Saritoprak and Peter Kreeft, was well-attended by people from many traditions, but I’m willing to bet that just about every Christian fellowship on campus was represented. So while I stood in the back waiting to meet some friends from Interfaith in Action, the relatively high density of Cru, InterVarsity (IV) and Navigators shirts inspired some reflection.

As a Christian, I value the sort of community that a Christian fellowship provides. However, I also value the opportunity to share the message of my faith with others. In reflecting, I thought back to my days as a Bible study leader with IV – my struggle to balance over-commitment to academics and extracurricular activities and an evangelism seminar my junior year that convicted me not to renew my time-consuming commitments to leadership with IV.

Why? Because the take-home message of the seminar was simple: stop doing so many things with just Christians and start doing things with people from a different background. It’s through those relationships that you will show others who Jesus is.

That seminar confirmed my spiritual calling to interfaith work.

I thought about where I have come since then. One year after that retreat, I attended an IFYC conference at Northwestern University. Six months later, we organized more than 5,000 people in packaging 1,000,000 meals for earthquake victims in Haiti, Champaign-Urbana’s largest ever interfaith service project. Six months after that, I found myself in front of the White House with 200 other student leaders at the first ever Interfaith Leadership Institute.

As a student speaker in the opening session of that ILI, I remember the excitement of telling my parents – both of whom are Christians and great supporters of my involvement in interfaith work – about how I knew that I had heard God’s call correctly: I had been given the opportunity to go to the White House to tell 200 hundred other students about the ways that Jesus inspires me to serve others.

But I realize now that the real indicators of God’s desire come in less obvious, but more meaningful forms. Like those of the friends I was meeting at that dialogue last Thursday night.

They are people like Adam, an atheist and an inspiring leader with whom I get to work closely on a regular basis. Or Gautam, an old friend from my hometown with Jain and Hindu heritage – and now a colleague in interfaith work on our campus. Or Adham, an American Muslim of Syrian descent who is one of the University of Illinois’ emerging young interfaith leaders. But that’s just a few – there are innumerable others who I have met through interfaith work – some in just short conversations, others as collaborators and friends in long-term projects.

What I realized while waiting in the back of that multipurpose room last Thursday night was that these relationships are the real reason I know my spiritual calling to do interfaith work is true. Because I’m doing something that I wasn’t doing before, something that my faith was instructing me to do all along – I’m building inspiring relationships with people of different backgrounds.

Relationships like this are built at events like the IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institutes, which are this summer in Chicago (June 18-21, 2012) and Philadelphia (July 16-19). Also, consider joining us at the University of Illinois April 20th-22nd for the inaugural Illinois Conference on Interfaith Cooperation. We have some special guests including Eboo PatelJim WallisChris Stedman and Valarie Kaur.

And you might even get to meet Adam, Gautam or Adham…

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