A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by David Fraccaro of the IFYC if I could travel to London for an event put on by the Three Faiths Forum, a UK-based organization similar in mission to IFYC who was trying to launch campus interfaith initiatives at universities across London. Not surprisingly, I agreed.
When the day finally came, I hopped on a train and arrived in London just after lunch. A quick jaunt through the Underground on the Northern Line, and I emerged in the quiet neighborhood of Belsize Park, where the event was taking place. I checked in to the retreat center, met briefly with David, and then headed inside to sit in on some of the training sessions to get a feel for the conference’s trajectory.
I met some really great people—everyone welcomed me warmly and graciously allowed me to hang around. I participated in a few of the group challenges, like when we sorted through a pile of questions and phrases, teasing out those we felt demonstrated the greatest and least respect before discussing those we felt floated on the margins of either category. It was an eye-opening experience to see the myriad assumptions that go into even our most simple questions.
I found it interesting that the Three Faiths Forum not only works to promote interfaith cooperation amongst religious groups on university campuses, but also runs programs in London-area secondary schools (among other things). These programs bring speakers from various faith traditions into classrooms, where they share their stories and spend time teaching the value of mutual civility and the art of asking respectful questions. The aim is to get the students thinking about what they say and how they view people other than themselves. I thought it was a great, though albeit rather bold, thing to do, as I can’t imagine doing something similar in American high schools.
I gave a brief address during an informal panel discussion—a story about how I became involved in interfaith work and where I hoped to go with it in the future—and fielded a few questions regarding the pragmatics of mobilizing campus and community groups to engage in large-scale service projects.
After our sessions ended for the day, we headed to dinner, and I had a chance to get to know everyone better. The next day (and the last day of their conference), everyone shared their ideas for reaching out to their campus communities and demonstrating the power of interfaith cooperation. Their ideas were incredible and original, inspiring me to consider implementing a few of them at U of I when I return next semester.
My favorite idea was one that involved making t-shirts emblazoned with the symbol of your faith tradition on it and then building a full-size archway out of cardboard bricks (or something similar) in a prominent campus location, the display of unity coming from the concerted effort to build an object that requires all of its parts to stand (as an arch does). I imagine this could be a pretty powerful demonstration on the quad at University of Illinois.
My time with the Three Faiths Forum reminded me that interfaith is also international. It isn’t a movement consigned to American university campuses or even London secondary schools, but is something that involves the entire world. (I think the recent stories of Muslims and Christians standing together in the Middle East proves this.) And I know that we talk about it as being a global movement all the time, but I must admit that it didn’t quite hit me until I sat in a room with students from another country who shared the same values as I do about interfaith cooperation.
When we as Christians participate in interfaith work, we participate in an international discussion. Our efforts to form relationships with those of other religious and non-religious traditions may not seem like much at first, but once the example has been set in one place, it can be followed in another. Just think of Martin Luther King Jr following the example set by Gandhi; one individual’s witness for their faith can resonate throughout the world.