I’ve been doing full-time interfaith work at a university for a year now. During the week my days are filled with conversations about pluralism and interfaith cooperation, dialogue and safe space, civic action and religious and non-religious identity. It is my job to plan events and programs for college students in order to promote religious pluralism on campus, religious literacy (that includes understanding around religious and non-religious identity), and common action for the common good across religious difference. This is my normal.
I am so convinced of the importance of my work that I often take it for granted, but the truth is – not everyone is convinced that interfaith dialogue and cooperation are necessary or even relevant. After a year of full-time interfaith work I’ve heard from a lot of different reasons why interfaith work is a waste of time. One could assume that I’d be used to it – but every time I encounter yet another person with yet another reason to be skeptical of interfaith work I’m still caught off guard.
A few weeks back I was (wo)manning a table for the Interfaith Center at a training workshop for higher education professionals. I was there to provide information on the Interfaith Center and what it offers to students as far as programs, services and events. One by one trainees came by my table and I was pleased with the amount of enthusiasm with which people were responding. The responses were so overwhelmingly positive that I was almost shocked when one particular trainee’s attitude didn’t match those of prior encounters.
At first it seemed (let’s call him Bob) Bob and I were on the same page – we agreed that the university has students of diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds (believe it or not it can be difficult to get some people to recognize this). Our conversation developed into misconceptions of Islam, “In fact,” he continued, “what many students, or people in general don’t even realize, is that Islam was founded as one of the most peaceful religions in the world.”
I nodded, “Yes there’s so much students don’t know about other religions, that’s why we’re here – to help them learn and understand these differences in an interactive, engaging, and personal level.” He looked at me quizzically – though I initially mistook his look for one of agreement, so I went on, “One of our programs is called Coffee and Conversation. Once or twice a month throughout the Academic Year we bring in a religious leader, faculty, or staff member to lead a one hour casual conversation about a particular religious or non-religious identity or current event relating to religion. We’re having a hard time finding people to participate this year and since you seem to have so much knowledge on religion – perhaps you’d be interested in leading one of these Coffee and Conversations?”
Bob smiled weakly, “Yeah – I seriously doubt it. I’m one of those who are of the opinion that religion has done, and does, more harm in the world than good. I wouldn’t find something like that to be productive.”
I persisted, “but that’s exactly the point. A lot of people are in agreement with you – that religion does more harm than good – but I think it’s actually fear, misunderstanding, lack of education and interpersonal relationships that does the harm, not the religion itself. If we work hard to build understanding across difference, then a lot of that division, and violence, and hatred, and harm, can be prevented.”
He didn’t bite.
It’s easy to feel a little defeated after encounters like these. Sometimes I almost feel convinced that perhaps I’m being naive and too idealistic to think that interfaith dialogue and cooperation can have any kind of impact.
But then I’m usually given a glimmer of hope.
The news coming out of Egypt the last month has been grim. I, like many others, have not kept up with the news as much as I should. I would catch glimpses of the goings-on in Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt on NPR during my morning commute, CNN and various articles found on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Every bit of news seemed more bleak than the last.
But then a particular photo went viral. I’m sure you’ve seen it – a group of Egyptian Muslim men wearing traditional white garb are holding hands circling an Egyptian Catholic Church in an effort to protect the church and the Christians attending mass inside from the threat of pillaging at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is news of this happening all over Egypt – Muslims protecting Christian churches from destruction. Equally encouraging was the response of some Christians to those Muslims risking their lives to save their church buildings. In response Christians encouraged Muslims to not put themselves in danger in order to protect their church building. I also saw another beautiful image – one of Christians holding hands in Tahrir Square circling Muslims during prayer who would be left vulnerable during protests.
In the midst of the grimly bleak news out of Egypt – these images stand as our glimmers of hope. These images beautifully illustrate the importance of interfaith cooperation. Building understanding and love across religious difference has real consequences.
I disagree with Bob. Religion doesn’t do more harm than good; further, religious and non-religious difference doesn’t have to do more harm than good. When presented with these images I had to ask myself – as a Christian would I be willing to risk my life to protect a Mosque? Would I be willing to risk harm to myself to stand guard around a group or praying Muslims? I hope I would, but I can’t be too sure. I truly believe Jesus would – and I believe Jesus would urge me to do the same. [John 15:13]
I also know that I am passionate about cultivating a generation that would answer “yes” to that question without hesitation. There is hope in interfaith cooperation. For every act of interfaith conflict and division I believe there stands an illustration of interfaith cooperation and unity – our glimmers of hope.
And where those illustrations of cooperation and unity don’t yet exist, I believe that with a little work, persistence and yes, prayer, they can exist.
Where have you seen glimmers of hope lately?