Following Monday’s guest post, “The Gay Divide,” I’m excited to bring you yet another perspective on queer issues and interfaith work. Today’s post for our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Robert Chlala, a Campus Engagement Associate with the Interfaith Youth Core. Written in advance of the recent IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institutes, it is an important and timely message on the importance of LGBTQ participation in interfaith work. As a queer interfaith advocate, Robert’s message resonates deeply with me. I hope it will with you, too. As Robert shows, not only does it get better, but we’re “better together.” Without further ado:
News had recently broke about the suicide of yet another LGBTQ youth in the U.S., the latest in a rash that has brought to light the exclusion and violence that continues to plague those marked “different.”
Speaking to a top conservative leader and member of the Young Republicans on her campus, Lily Connor calmly relayed her story of how she has worked to create a space for interfaith dialogue in the social justice campaigns she leads. She pauses for him to share his experiences, but he is unsure where he fits in. As she guides him he lights up as he realizes that he too has a story: that he is living interfaith cooperation in that very moment.
This could be your typical story of a growing interfaith student movement, one that we hear at Interfaith Youth Core almost daily. But I’m leaving out a few important details:
• Lily is transgender, and the leader of Feminist Voices and several other campus action groups.
• The campus is Southwestern University, located in the small, conservative commuter town of Georgetown, Texas.
In the face of a more-than-uphill struggle, Lily could have stayed home that day and forgotten she had ever heard the word “interfaith.” She could have chosen not to brave the possibility of awkward glances, retreated from trying to give LGTBQ people a voice in growing social movements.
Instead, as Lily explained in her application to IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington, DC – which she will attend this weekend with some 300-some college students, faculty and staff from across the country – she knew she could not just stay home. She wrote, “My faith informs the social work I engage in, just as other people’s religious or secular values inform theirs… In short, social justice and interfaith cooperation need each other.”
So she came to the table.
As did the several members of Auburn University’s LGBTQ organization, who worked with with two dozen multicultural and faith-based student leaders on a beautiful fall Sunday last month to understand how interfaith cooperation is integral to all their efforts at the Alabama public university.
As did Ted Lewis, the Assistant Director for Sexual and Gender diversity at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, who participated in an intensive interfaith workshop we held last Friday. Glowing, he shared how he was inspired by several local churches’ efforts to build bridges with LGBTQ communities.
Ted and his fellow staff, listening to the stories of young students from across the South that IFYC has encountered in the last few months, beamed with the understanding that the interfaith movement isn’t just something that happens in remote big cities up North or on the West Coast. It is already happening in neighborhoods and on campuses a stone’s throw away.
At a time when perhaps we have never needed it more, this growing movement is creating a space for young people – from Kentucky to California – to articulate their values and truly come as they are, towards creating a better world.
This weekend, hundreds of these dedicated college students and faculty, of all religions, ethnic and racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities, will gather to take this vision to the next level.
As part of IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute, they will gain tools to take interfaith cooperation home to their campuses, towards tackling some of the most pressing social issues of our time. As part of the Better Together campaign kicking off this fall, they will change the conversation on faith and values.
What they may not realize is that – by sitting in the room together – they are already moving the course of history. They will confront their fears and prejudices. They will ask questions they were long afraid to confront.
And they will understand that they are poised to overcome the verbal and physical violence that drive young people to hopelessness, to defeat the virulent xenophobia and intolerance that colored this last summer, and to build a world where we are truly better together.
Robert Chlala is a Campus Engagement Associate with the Interfaith Youth Core and a freelance writer. Over the last 10 years, he has helped lead numerous social change organizations, such as the California Fund for Youth Organizing , which have been rooted in the power of young people to radically impact issues such as immigration, media, human rights, and education. Interfaith engagement has been a core of this work: he has seen first-hand how youth working around shared values have transformed his home communities in Los Angeles and Northern California – and are creating a better world around the U.S. He is also a practicing Nichiren Buddhist and active with the local Soka Gakkai International chapter.
October 26th, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Note: Below is a very brief blog I produced while working at the Interfaith Youth Core / White House Interfaith Leadership Institute, which just ended today. Whew! So much to share about the last week; stay tuned. For now, my blog:
As a secular humanist working to advance positive and productive dialogue and action between the religious and nonreligious, I have been so thrilled to meet several nonreligious students at both sessions of the IFYC / White House Interfaith Leadership Institute.
One such individual is Michael Anderson, a young man in the cluster I am working with as an Alumni Coach. A Junior at McKendree University in Lebanon, IL, Michael has been doing interfaith for a long time, but his secular humanist identity was something that came a bit later. Though he experiences some tension as a humanist doing interfaith work, he also said, “I’m a firm believer that if things don’t sit well, that’s probably a good thing. I also believe that if you keep at it, that feeling might settle.”
Ultimately, he sees interfaith work as a pragmatic necessity. “We’re all just human beings, and we have to come to a conclusion on how to live together.”
Another nonreligious student at the Institute is Chelsea Link, a Junior at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, who said that she does interfaith work because “there’s no way you can deny that religion is important in the world for so many people; the point of being a humanist is to find common ground in humanity, to support one another, to find meaning in life, and to work together. You can’t do that if you’re shutting out giant portions of humanity just because they believe different things than you do.”
Chelsea, who heard about the Institute through Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, said that she plans to carry everything she learned here out into the world to work to bring the religious and nonreligious together.
“When I found humanism, I felt like many humanists and atheists were detached from religious communities, and many were antagonistic toward the religious,” said Chelsea. “Meanwhile, at interfaith events, I didn’t see much of an invitation for atheists or humanists. The religious and nonreligious don’t know how to deal with each other; I’d like to see more reaching out from both sides. We shouldn’t be afraid of each other!”
After this weekend, I know there are many other amazing young leaders who agree with her.
Today’s post in our ongoing series of guest bloggers comes from the amazing Amber Hacker, Network Engagement Coordinator at the Interfaith Youth Core. Below, Amber reflects on a few atheists who inspire her and the kinds of honest and respectful conversations atheists and Christians can have. Take it away, Amber!
This is true, except a part of me would be disappointed if that happened, because Chris is such an important leader in the interfaith youth movement who represents a much needed non-religious voice.
Our conversation is not a typical one between a conservative Christian and an atheist. The reason Chris and I were able to have that difficult conversation is because of the relationship we’ve built with one other through working at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).
A big part of my job at IFYC is answering calls and e-mails from folks interested in getting involved in the interfaith youth movement, but aren’t sure if they have a place. I can’t tell you how often I hear “I’m really inspired by this message, but can I be involved in interfaith work if I am [insert blank here -- atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, non-religious, seeking, etc.]?”
My answer? “Yes! You absolutely have a seat at the table, and we need you in this movement.”
Let me tell you about these folks that inspire me on a daily basis – my secular/atheist/agnostic heroes.
Greg Epstein, Harvard Humanist Chaplain and recent author of the bestseller “Good Without God,” is a good friend to IFYC and an important voice for those that identify as non-religious. I got to know Greg when I organized IFYC’s 2009 conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. Greg was one of our most popular conference speakers because people in this movement, both religious and non-religious, are hungry for his message — that secular humanism should have with respectful relationship with religion (and I would argue, vice-versa).
Greta Christina, author of the widely-read Greta Christina’s Blog. While I don’t know Greta personally, she taught me that we have a lot more in common than what we have different. For example, 95 percent of what makes Greta angry makes me angry too.
Mary Ellen Giess, an incredibly skilled staff member here at the IFYC. Mary Ellen, who is a humanist, helps me better articulate my identity as a Christian. She is such an important ally for the non-religious to this movement.
And of course, Chris Stedman, who is a dear friend and founder of NonProphet Status, one of the most talented interfaith leaders to come through the IFYC’s programs, and someone who continually inspires me on a daily basis.
Bottom line: I believe the faith divide isn’t between the religious or non-religious. For that matter, it isn’t between Christians and Jews, or Muslims and Hindus. It’s between those who believe in pluralism — that we can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty — and those who seek to dominate and divide.
We may not agree about heaven or hell (or for that matter, if there is even an afterlife). I don’t think we should gloss over these differences — Chris and I certainly haven’t. What I hope we can agree on is the importance of being in relationship with one another. And as I say on the phone to potential young non-religious interfaith leaders and what I want to say to you today:
We need you in the interfaith youth movement. Because we certainly have a lot of work to do — addressing poverty, hunger, human trafficking, the environment, you name it — and I think we can do it better together.
Amber Hacker is the Network Engagement Coordinator for the Interfaith Youth Core, where she organizes the organization’s biennial Conference, internship program, and alumni network. In her spare time, she works as a Youth Group Leader at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @IFYCAmber.
Today’s guest post in the current lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Lewis Marshall, the president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. Lewis reflects on how AHA! became one of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR) and the subsequent interfaith alliances they built. This is a really great resource for any non-religious students interested in interfaith campus work. Without further ado:
I had the honor of being on a panel discussion about operating an atheist student group in an interfaith organization at the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) conference this summer. I had a great time, and it was nice to meet the other panelists (Hemant Mehta, Chris Stedman, and Jonathan Weyer). Chris has graciously invited me to share more of my experiences with getting involved in interfaith work. I hope this context helps to explain why I think atheist groups should be involved in interfaith organizations. I’m also going to share a few lessons I’ve learned that may help those starting this process.
There may be dissent from your own organization
In the spring of 2009, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford (AHA!) applied to become a member of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR). The main sticking point in becoming a member of the SAR was discomfort inside our group about the pledge that is required of SAR groups. In part, it reads: “promote the moral and spiritual growth of the Stanford University community.”
That single word, “spiritual,” was a major source of argument in deciding whether to join the SAR. Many people believed that joining this organization would compromise our values. Others thought that we shouldn’t join because we are not technically a “religion.”
In the end, we joined, and with our application included a memorandum of understanding, which read in part:
Though its participants generally do not consider themselves religious, AHA! reconciles its purpose with a broad interpretation of the term “religion,” and of the pledge by all SAR organizations to promote “spiritual growth” …with respect to open inquiry into questions of meaning and morality, which are spiritual questions in the most comprehensive sense, AHA!’s function complements those of the other SAR organizations.
Looking back now, the initial argument was overblown. Being part of the SAR has not affected the daily life of our group, or forced us to compromise our mission. We’ve still been able to do controversial events and we’ve still been able to run our group as we see fit. In my mind, the practical outcomes are more important than any hang-up over labels.
There may be less backlash from religious organizations than you expect.
In part, we wrote the memorandum of understanding for ourselves, to show that we had a clear vision for our involvement with the SAR. In another sense, it was a way of preparing for objections from religious organizations. We were concerned that religious organizations would question our place in a community that pledges to promote spiritual growth.
In reality, we’ve had virtually no comment from religious organizations on our involvement with the SAR. No one objected to us when we joined, no one has showed surprise at seeing our banner at events. It has been a complete non-issue.
We anticipated some criticism participating in Everybody Draw Muhammad day. In particular, the rules of the SAR require that we inform religious organizations of events critical of their religion. We did not receive any response from Muslim student groups over this event, the only criticism was in anonymous comments on our website.
In my mind the take-away lesson is this: If you act like you belong in an interfaith organization, people will treat you like you belong in an interfaith organization. Be kind and confident, and you might be surprised by the reaction.
There may be more material benefits to joining an interfaith organization than you realize.
When we joined the SAR, we anticipated that it would be a mainly symbolic gesture. In reality, we’ve received a number of material benefits that we never considered.
Incoming freshmen at Stanford are asked to fill out a religious preference card letting the Office of Religoius life know their religious affiliation. Each year, we get a list of over 100 incoming freshmen who listed themselves as atheists, agnostics, or something uncommon like like “Jedi” or “Discordian.”
Being on the SAR mailing list has led us to many event opportunities. While we always table at the major activity fairs, we now have the opportunity to participate in discussions and tabling events specifically for religious organizations. We currently have a list of about five events catering to the religious needs of incoming freshmen this fall.
We now have access to a number of meeting spaces we would not otherwise have, including the Stanford Memorial Church. This year, we were able to host Austin Dacey in the church at the regional SSA conference at no cost to ourselves.
Religious organizations are likely to need the same sorts of infrastructure as an atheist student group. Interfaith organizations can help you tap into that infrastructure and make organizing your group that much easier.
You may find some natural allies.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the very helpful people we’ve met in Stanford’s religious community. The Progressive Christians have been some of our best friends at Stanford. They were particularly helpful in setting up a discussion with Hemant Mehta and their campus minister, Geoff Browning. The Hare Krishnas facilitated one of the most vigorous discussions we’ve had about the existence of God. We’ve also had contact with the Quaker and Buddhist communities. These two groups contain atheists and I think they could make great allies.
I think it’s important to build ties to partner organizations like this, because it’s one of the quickest ways of changing perceptions about atheists. Some of these communities were hesitant to work with us, but after holding events together I think we have a solid relationship and a real understanding.
So why join an interfaith organization?
In my mind, this is like asking, “Why join the SSA? Why join the Center for Inquiry?” All of these organizations have resources that can help your group. They have connections to interesting, involved people. If you can find a way to use those resources, you’re helping yourself, and you’re helping to build a meaningful, diverse community.
P.S. That’s great, Lewis, but it doesn’t really help me…
I realize that many of you live in areas more conservative than the Stanford, and you might not find your religious organizations as welcoming as we did. I’ve certainly talked to people still getting a cold shoulder from religious organizations. I can only speak from my experience, but I think this will get better. Religious students attend meetings and share ideas cross-country too. As more and more atheist groups enter interfaith communities, I think it will start to seem more normal. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Lewis Marshall is the former publicist and current president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. He was previously a member of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists (CASH) at the University of Minnesota. Lewis is currently a third-year Ph.D. student of chemical engineering at Stanford and received his B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 2008.