Malala represents the next generation of interfaith leaders

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on October 14, 2014.

The leadership of the next generation looks like Malala Yousafzai: a hopeful, determined young person, embracing pluralism and striving to make her community – both locally and globally – more just and equal.

Last week, we saw interfaith in action when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, “a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, [who are a part of the] common struggle for education and against extremism,” in the words of prize committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland. We saw proof that the values that unite us are stronger than the forces that divide us, and we started to see the potential of coming together to contribute to the greater good.

In a world where our media is consumed with stories of violence and conflict, this was a refreshing narrative. However, while not adequately recognized and celebrated, this example of leadership can be found in nearly every community, including our own.

For the past two years, Grand Valley State University has sent several students to Interfaith Youth Core’s Leadership Institute, where students learn about other traditions not through a textbook, but through relationships with their peers. Muslims and Jews, atheists and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists develop friendships based in understanding differences and celebrating common values.

Inherent in this coming together is the desire to serve not only our own communities, but all communities, regardless of belief tradition. Better Together @ GVSU, a new student group formed out of this conference, embodies this conviction: We can do more than get along, we can work alongside one another.

This is the only model of social change that has any hope of making an impact on a significant scale in the complex issues we face today – from racism and all forms of discrimination to promoting peace in conflict regions. Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, are the perfect generation to lead us to embrace such radical acceptance. As the newly largest and most diverse generation in the U.S., according to Pew Research, which found that 43 percent of millennials are non-white, we interact with people who are different from ourselves every day. We can either use that as a barrier to divide or we can build bridges of cooperation. 

This is why I was so encouraged at our luncheon on Sept. 11, which announced our 2015 Year of Interfaith Service. When a college student and high school student shared their own insights with a crowd of more than 60 community leaders, the sense of hope was palpable. Those in the room saw the leaders that could help our city be a more inclusive and understanding community. 

At that luncheon, local political, business and religious leaders agreed: In order for our 2015 Year of Interfaith Service to have the greatest impact — not just for this one year but for years moving forward — it must be an inter-generational effort. We must learn from the young people in our communities, our own Malalas, who are leading the way in creating a respectful dialogue and an inclusive common good. 


Veganism as a secular spiritual practice

Reposted from NonProphet Status | Oct. 6, 2014 

It has been a few weeks since Vlad argued that all atheists should be vegan, but the conversation has continued though responses here on NonProphet Status, on NPR, and in Time. I’ve enjoyed the discussion immensely, and while I agree wholeheartedly with the ethical and moral arguments put forward, I have different reasons for why it’s important for me, from a secular perspective, to have a vegan or vegetarian diet. Primarily, I see vegetarianism or veganism as a form of spiritual practice—an essential part of my humanism that connects me not just to other living beings, but also to the broader world around me.

I’ve been nonreligious for about 10 years, and I’ve been very happy in that time. There have been moments, though, where nonreligious life seems particularly isolated—there is no god or community to rely on, and independence, in my case, started to resemble self-centeredness.

To find answers, fulfillment and meaning, I had to look internally. I realized that the space in my life believers filled with God, I was filling with what I happened to care about at that moment. Christian philosopher Paul Tillich described faith and religion as dealing with matters of “ultimate concern,” and for a while, at least, that ultimate concern was myself.

I felt like I was missing a connection to something greater and outside of me. As I was having these realizations, I was reading “Acts of Faith” by Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and guru to all of us interfaith activists. In describing a meal he, as a Muslim, was sharing with a Hindu woman, Patel explored his date’s reasons for being a vegetarian. For her, what she ate was a question of faith, and faith is about deepening one’s spirituality. I realized that in order for me to more meaningfully hold my secular faith in humanity, and in the world around me, I should practice that in a daily tangible way. I needed that spiritual connection to something outside of myself.

This was the moment where I decided to stop eating meat. I knew if, every day, I made the decision not to eat meat, not only would I be connected to something external to my own being, but I would also be humbled. Recognizing my place as only one of many living things deeply connected me to this planet. More than that, it connected me to a cause and greater good only possible if I go beyond self-reliance.

As Sunday Assemblies and Humanist Communities gain traction in the secular community, our social needs for community are being met. But I’ve found that our inner, private lives can often be left unfulfilled. We have few daily activities that let us reflect on our values, connect to what we care about, and cultivate ourselves into the people we want to be. Here, we can look to religious and nonreligious traditions for inspiration.

While I recognize this is not right for everyone, a vegan diet is the only way for me to live out my humanist values. Compassion and humility have now become daily reminders that embody my concern for all living creatures.

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On art, disability, interdependence, and leaning into one another

Repost from The Prophetic Collective | Oct. 4, 2014

This reflection is coming from Grand Rapids, Michigan, a place that has become known for holding one of the largest art competitions in the world – Art Prize. For three weeks every fall, downtown opens up to any artist and winners are decided by public vote. Downtown museums, parks, businesses, and restaurants become art venues, everything is free, there are over 1,500 artists from all over the world and hundreds of thousands visit every year.

It’s a phenomenal display of community and collaboration; it calls on us to enjoy the city, to enjoy each other, and enjoy expression of all forms. One of the most meaningful aspects of this are the moments where we can slow down and talk about themes of Art Prize – organizers, artists, and the public, all together in an open dialogue.

Tonight I attended one of those sessions – a “Critical Discourse” on Art, Disability, Images and Bodies. The conversation, led by three internationally renowned disability scholars – who were also disabled themselves – was meant to explore this lens of disability in art and society. When a person is attuned to this lens, we come to appreciate that disability is a broad and diverse experience. Consequently, after the conversation, my own lens shifted. The evening was transformative, and honestly deeply spiritual, by coming outside of myself and into a new way of seeing and understanding. There’s a lot to say, but for clarity’s sake, I’d like to boil down to two themes that most profoundly affected me.

Narrative of self and community: “Don’t put us in a box”

As most issue-based movements do, they promoted storytelling as a means for understanding. But they specified, this isn’t the usual storytelling of giving testimonies, they weren’t there to tell the audience “what my experience is like as a disabled person.” What they were interested in doing was just telling the rest of the story. If you only give the testimony, the identity story, then the audience puts you into a box, and can fill in the rest of the story for themselves. Especially important in art and expression, agency of the subject is of utmost importance. Just as one should allow the subject of the piece to tell his or her own story, the person on the stage must tell his or her own story. Finally, they don’t want stories to be ones of “overcoming” disability, implying that there is something to be fixed, something inherently wrong. “We’re different and that’s okay.” Tell that story. Allow that story to help people recognize and appreciate different ways of being and different ways of experiencing. They’re all valid, and they’re all important to understand.

Actions of self and community: “Lean into one another”

Support and interdependence were both huge themes throughout the discussion. One panelist said that in disability culture, there’s a sense of operating in a different paradigm, in one of interdependence; a world where we literally and figuratively need one another. This interdependence is not only emotional, but it’s also physical – it’s common in the disability culture to emphasize touch, physical touch and physical closeness. It brings us closer to understanding each other, and simply being with one another, being present. Realizing we are only ‘one’ because we are also ‘us’; we need each other and survive together, thanks to one another. This is a radical community of wholeness of the self because of oneness with the community. It struck me as not only a way to appreciate the people around you, but to draw you closer to the people around you. We were even asked to “lean into one another” during the discussion, even if we didn’t know the people around us, lay on their shoulder, reach out a hand, physically touch to give experience to the interconnectedness.

In my own life, I’ve decided to take note (literally, in a journal full of quotes, doodles, and stories) and celebrate moments of transformation – the moments that seem small, but where something becomes clear, or something that awakens the individual to a new way of knowing or being. This conversation not only provided that, but I felt the potential for this experience to stretch even further – that maybe we should adopt this radical paradigm of interdependence to help us understand how to live in community with one another more fully, and more inclusively. It applies not only for the disability community, but any community that is separated from others – whether it’s through economic, racial, or social injustices. Here’s to hoping that my change in perspective, alongside others who attended this event or are a part of similar conversations happening every day across the globe, will encourage a broader change in the structure of our communities to embrace interdependence as a way of living. Only when we allow all people within the community to flourish can the community as a whole flourish, and maybe we can get that done with an action as simple as leaning into one another.