Using interfaith dialogue in conflict reconciliation

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on April 23, 2015.

We live in a world full of conflict. From religion to politics, we see people’s differing positions become pretexts for argument, division, and sometimes violence. Even in news coverage, we often hear “what bleeds, leads”; the media and general public are seemingly more interested in stories of drama and disagreement rather than those of peace. But, as I suggested in my Insight two weeks ago, interfaith work is all about providing a counter-narrative to the role we usually see religion play in conflict. The interfaith movement proves how religion can bring people together in unity without uniformity, and understanding without total agreement.

While those of us at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute are doing this on the local, grassroots level, we are a part of a movement where our colleagues are promoting this peace and understanding on the global scale – combating the misuse of religious extremism and violence through interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation and reconciliation.

Last month, we welcomed two guests to Grand Rapids who are leading such efforts: Sarah Snyder of the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme and Bishop James Newcome of Carlisle, England. Inspired by their individual projects in promoting understanding, they are embarking collaboratively on an exciting new project for reconciliation.

Rose Castle, the residence traditionally given to the Bishop of Carlisle, who is currently the Rt. Rev. James Newcome, will become an international center for reconciliation between conflicting groups, using faith as a bridge rather than a barrier. Located on the border of England and Scotland, Rose Castle has been a place where difference led to violence and conflict for over 800 years. It is for that reason that Snyder and Bishop Newcome are changing the narrative; in Snyder’s words: “It was a place built to resist the stranger, so we decided to re-open it as a place that welcomes the stranger.”

Rose Castle’s mission is grounded in a value found in all religious and non-religious traditions: hospitality. For Snyder and Newcome, this ethos is exemplified by Abraham welcoming three visitors to his desert abode. They will live this out by honoring the dignity and distinctness of all human beings. They also recognize, though, that hospitality is a two-way street: It means one is willing to host as well as be a guest of those of different religious or secular traditions.

Rooted in hospitality, their goal is to transcend mere accommodation to facilitate reconciliation between groups in conflict. Through dialogues that emphasize story-telling and active listening, Snyder and Newcome have seen firsthand that conflict and disagreement become understanding and respect. This is what Snyder calls conflict transformation; it goes beyond reconciling differences, to transformation of how the “other” is viewed. Emphasizing the process of listening and relationship-building, the individual or party who is often viewed as an “enemy” is humanized – beginning the journey of reconciling conflict and transforming attitudes.

Within this process, reconciliation is both personal and communal; healing happens to the individual and the group when those in conflict bring together what has been broken.

As Desmond Tutu once said, “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.” While you may not hear about it in the news, there are efforts to help us humanize and realize our need of one another happening here at home and all over the world. To be a part of the story yourself, visit www.interfaithunderstanding.org for more information on what’s happening in West Michigan and www.rosecastle.org for more on the international initiative.

Trying to change our world, one story at a time

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on April 9, 2015.

If you had $1 million to fulfill a wish to change the world, what would you do? This question is asked every year to the TED Prize recipient. This year Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, revealed his world-changing idea: listening. 

StoryCorps, a public radio initiative that seeks to archive the wisdom of humanity through stories shared between loved ones and strangers, is based on the premise that each human being has a meaningful story to share. To me, this idea is deeply grounded in the same premise of interfaith dialogue – each person and their story matters, in Isay’s words, “equally and infinitely.”

In interfaith dialogue, we communicate our traditions and our values through storytelling, and we come to understand the experience of others through listening. These stories range from those found in traditions’ scriptures to stories created in our communities or families today. Stories allow for us to learn with not only the mind, but also the heart.

Recognizing this potential that stories have to empower individuals and unite communities, Marshall Ganz, senior lecturer at Harvard University and longtime grassroots organizer, developed a framework of storytelling for social change. In his words, stories connect “the three elements of self, us, and now: why I am called, why we are called, and why we are called to act now.”

Coming from a Jewish family, Ganz also recalls the 1st-century sage, Rabbi Hillel, who similarly expressed this idea: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”

In the interfaith movement, we view stories as tools for increasing understanding. For example, reading statistics on Islamophobia is one thing, but hearing a story from a Muslim experiencing discrimination communicates an entirely different message. As Ganz says, our values are embedded into our stories, and thus translated into action; it is through this sharing that solidarity is created and common goals are inspired.

In these individual stories of interfaith dialogue and cooperation, we create collective stories that become counter-narratives to the news coverage we often see of religion being violent and divisive. Through the interfaith movement, we have the power to not only voice our own stories, but we also have the power to re-write the role that religion plays in society. We can show through our stories of self, us, and now, that religion can lead to cooperation rather than conflict, and inspire unity instead of division.

The charge for us becomes, inspired by Isay’s initiative and Ganz’s framework, how can we create spaces to listen, understand, and be inspired by the stories of those around us? My own “story of now” is one in which we must come together to transform ourselves and our communities to be more inclusive and interconnected. If you have a similar vision, I invite you to start today – talk to one person of a different tradition or background. Whether you do this through our Year of Interfaith Service activities, in your workplace or in your neighborhood, you will see for yourself the transformational power of listening and storytelling.