Lessons Learned from Interfaith Action

by Katie R. Gordon
Master of Arts Degree in Interfaith Action
Claremont Lincoln University

In December 2015, I come to the end of my 15-month Master’s program in Interfaith Action from Claremont Lincoln University. It has been a fulfilling and challenging program, and below are my reflections on the six learning objectives of the coursework. Enjoy!

Learning Objective 1Explore and interpret religion in relation to structures of power and privilege and in the context of cultural, political, and economic histories

Artifact: Power and Privilege in Self and Society: Week 6 Reflection

Application: Rationale

The artifact which best shows my competence in exploring and interpreting religion in relation to structures of power and privilege and in the context of cultural, political, and economic histories comes from the Week 6 reflection. In that writing, I covered equitable forms of knowledge, how and why we gain religious literacy, and how the desire to know and understand the “other” reproduces colonial or oppressive power dynamics.

As a professional in interfaith, as well as in my experience as a public radio producer, I have always viewed stories as the core of my work – stories to promote understanding, relationships, and ultimately a positive transformation in a community. I’ve usually taken stories as tools to use in order to illuminate an identity or to explore a social issue. Stories are something we use, again and again, to further our goals of educating and broadening perspectives. I hadn’t considered the implications prior to our readings, particularly the readings on the role that power and imperialism play in developing knowledge. Knowledge, I’ve always thought, is a harmless thing; however, I now see that the seeking of knowledge could be voyeurism, it could take advantage of the subject, and it could take wrongful ownership over a narrative. Additionally, the reflection shows an understanding that the transfer of knowledge can be a potentially colonial/imperialistic practice, if done poorly or incorrectly.

Application: Change

As I have continued to use stories as tools for understanding religious identities and communities, and especially when I share stories that are not authored by myself, this course made me more conscious of the way I dictate and reiterate narratives and others’ stories. What is at stake is a lot more than simply the story itself, but the control over what the story could mean and how it represents a group of people. I must continue to be cognizant to maintain the authenticity of the story.

Further, this artifact shows how I integrated a mindfulness of power and privilege, post-colonialism, as well as cultural humility into my daily life and rhetoric. Moving forward in my interfaith positions, I must maintain this awareness of how my power and privilege play into the stories I tell – both my own as well as stories I have heard from others. I should realize how controlling and abusing the narrative of another culture or worldview is a sort of neo-colonialism where we take control of another society by taking agency over their story. Finally, this cultural humility helps me to be considerate of respecting others’ traditions in not allowing appropriation to occur. I must approach all discussions with a humble attitude of trying to learn from others in authentic and respectful ways.


Learning Objective 2:  Demonstrate an integrated knowledge of research and construct an evolving literacy of major religious traditions and cultural identities.

Artifact: Approaching Religion: Week 6, Discussion A

Application: Rationale

The artifact which best demonstrates an integrated knowledge of research and an evolving literacy of major religious traditions and cultural identities comes from Discussion A of Week 6, when we reflected on Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion and the chapters: Religion and the Insider/Outsider Problem, The Resemblance among Religions, and Religion and Classification.

The contextualized nature of ‘religion,’ in my analysis on McCutcheon, is the context of the individuals who practice and/or observe religion, or in other words, insiders and outsiders. With such complex things like religion, where there are different perspectives and experiences of even one particular tradition, classifying and defining sometimes limits our understandings too much to be useful. McCutcheon’s framework on this was shaped by J.Z. Smith, who wrote: “To define is not to finish, but to start. To define is not to confine but to create something…”  A definition is a starting place, but its meaning comes from its contextualization, which comes from the person defining/experiencing the religion. This is why the short essay on representation that I wrote is so important; we cannot talk about understanding concepts of religion without understanding those who represent it.

Further, this artifact also gets at the ‘politics of representation’, which as we explored in our first term’s course Power and Privilege, is an inescapable issue to discuss in this work. Who gets to represent the tradition? Who decides? Who is insider/outsider, and who dictates that line? Representation is just as complex as the concept of religion itself, and we have to understand representation to appreciate the context and nuances from which religion stems.  Representation also has a great deal to do with power and privilege over controlling a narrative. Many of the philosophers, anthropologists, and others who defined religion for us, had the academic power to call something religion, though not the representative rights, necessarily, to do so. The question for us, then, is whose experience and definition do we consider? I think the answer to that depends on what context matters to us: an academic context or a grassroots context.

Application: Change

This is where the artifact starts to show how I changed as a result of the course, as well as the framework I started to use to construct my religious and interreligious literacy. Because of this material, I decided that the context that matters for me is the lived experiences of those interacting with religion and religious traditions. This framework in which to approach interreligious dialogue appreciates the complexity and nuances of a tradition, and does not put anyone in a box because of their identity, but instead lets them speak their own truth. With this model and approach for religious engagement, I believe that many would feel comfortable – even the conservative or exclusive worldview types – coming to the table and letting their voice be represented. We need all at the table in interfaith dialogue, and this approach of understanding personalized contexts of religion will help us to do so.

These lessons have already manifested in my daily life at work. I began to look not at whose definition I use for religion or for one particular religion, but instead I put all of the definitions next to one another and let them coexist in their complexity. I think this has expanded my ‘moral imagination’ to include a messiness that has led to a meaningful perspective on this wide world of religion and interreligious engagement in which I work. While I still have a difficult time defining something like religion conclusively, I have realized that each single definition gets us closer to understanding the mosaic that is the concept of religion. This is an essential lesson for me to use in my framework viewing my field moving forward. While my journey of understanding is not over, and likely never will be, this artifact represents the progress I made in moving that understanding toward a contextualized and complex place.



Learning Objective 3Appraise the function of religio-cultural identities and apply strategies to resolve moral-based conflicts in a way that is non-defensive, confident, and respectful.

Artifact: Negotiating Moral Conflict: Week 2, Discussion A

Application: Rationale

From our course Negotiating Moral Conflict, discussion A of week 2 best shows my understanding of the function of religio-cultural identities, as well as how I would apply strategies to resolve moral-based conflicts in a way that is non-defensive, confident, and respectful.

The theoretical basis of social constructionism we built in Weeks 1 & 2 of the course was an enlightening and perspective-shifting way of understanding various how identities and social worlds function concurrently. Connecting Gergen’s ideas of social constructionism to the social worlds of Pearce and Littlejohn showed me that understanding how our social realities are based in the differing way we construct them, and that leads to much of moral conflict today. Further, in order to embrace Pearce and Littlejohn’s idea of “intervention [as] an art”, to use such an art form, we need social constructionism as a core understanding to the origin of moral conflict and our differing social narratives.

In the same artifact, I moved to discussing specific moral conflicts in my own community, and how social constructionism and understanding social worlds can help mitigate the conflicts. I propose that interfaith dialogue and social constructionism go hand-in-hand incredibly well because in both situations people enter into the conversation with an awareness of their own truth based on their own social world that might not be the same for others around them.

The most helpful way I could envision developing a way to resolve moral conflict is through Lyn Boyd-Johnson’s terminology of “moral universes” – and who is or isn’t in your moral universe. As I explore at the end of the artifact, expanding one’s moral universe opens up a person to the possibility of confronting one’s own assumptions by engaging with the enemy. But the awareness of such moral conflict requires someone to reflect on ways to engage that conflict in a positive way, hopefully by utilizing interfaith dialogue as a platform for positive interaction with the “other.”

Application: Change

I grew a great deal as an interfaith leader through learning about identity construction, social worlds, and moral conflict. The philosophical discussions around social constructionism and social worlds, as well as the skills necessary for intense moral conflict and negotiation, are not widely taught, but growing in importance as the diversity of our already diverse interfaith movement increases in the coming years. Social constructionism has become a lens from which I view all things, and by integrating this into my personal and professional life, I have been able to handle moral conflict and facilitation of difficult dialogue even more effectively and meaningfully.



Learning Objective 4Research, collaborate, design, and implement high-impact strategies in a leadership action plan for social change

Artifact: Capstone: “Creating Conceptual Frameworks for Interfaith Leadership on College & University Campuses in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Application: Rationale

In my final capstone project, entitled “Creating Conceptual Frameworks for Interfaith Leadership on College and University Campuses in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” I showed the research, collaboration, design, and implementation of a high-impact leadership action plan for social change.

The research of the interfaith leadership field is shown through a literature review which covers 20 articles and resources that show where the field lies and where it is going. The articles provide compelling reasons for the importance of engaging religious, spiritual and secular identity in higher education, as well as provide effective practices and methods to go about making a campus-wide change toward more effective engagement. As shown, there is a civic relevance of interfaith cooperation in higher education and beyond, and this serves as a major motivation for why various campuses should engage with interfaith leadership. Within higher education, this connects to diversity and inclusion efforts, as well as student affairs and spiritual development. Finally, interfaith connects to many campuses’ mission statements in which they promote civic engagement, service learning and preparing global citizens for an interconnected world. This research core helped shape the approach taken on each campus for social change toward interfaith engagement.

This paper also shows the collaboration and design that went into creating the interfaith leadership program at area colleges and universities. Through a grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the Kaufman Interfaith Institute established an internship program that will take place at three higher education institutions in the Grand Rapids area. With each college or university rooted in their particular faith or secular tradition – Grand Valley State University as a secular, public institution, Aquinas College as a Catholic-Dominican institution, and Calvin College as a Christian Reformed institution – this cohort of interns work on their campuses as well as in the community to promote interfaith dialogue and cooperation across our community. The program balances on-campus mentorship with a particular office, and off-campus mentorship with the Kaufman Interfaith Institute. The group also comes together on a bi-weekly basis to develop their interfaith leadership skills, build relationships with one another, and plan projects together. In these meetings, we are using a model for leadership development and social change based the Interfaith Youth Core’s signature framework: Voice, Engage, Act. Through conversations shaped by these elements, each meeting digs deeper into what it means to be an interfaith leader in our varied and shared contexts. Collaboration and collective skills-building is at the core of this leadership action plan.

Finally, the capstone shows what the outcome of the project actually was, showing the impact that it made in students’ lives who engaged with interfaith leadership training. It transformed the lives of the students in the program, the campuses they impacted, the community in which they are apart, and interfaith action overall in Grand Rapids. From individual to institutional impact, the implementation of this action plan went very well.

Application: Change

This project not only changed the students’ lives at the colleges and universities, but it greatly shaped our local interfaith community and my own leadership role within it. As a result of this Capstone and learning focus in general, youth interfaith leadership has become a core focus not only to Grand Rapids but also my own career. Moving forward, I will be able to speak to this emerging field of interfaith leadership in a deeply personal and practical way. Whether it be at Interfaith Youth Core conferences, through their Alumni Speakers Bureau, as an active campus in the President’s Interfaith & Community Service Campus Challenge, I will continue to cite this project as the way I learned about the depth and transformative power of interfaith leadership. The theory and practice learned through this Capstone and program overall was invaluable for my interfaith career moving forward.



Learning Objective 5Analyze and interrogate normative and popular categories of religion while developing a post-secular awareness to interpret the evolving role of religious and secular traditions in the public sphere.

Artifact: Religion and the Public Sphere: Week 3, Discussion B

Application: Rationale

In ‘Religion and the Public Sphere,’ and particularly discussion B of week 3, I was able to show my ability to analyze and interrogate categories of religion while developing a post-secular awareness to interpret the evolving role of religious and secular traditions in the public sphere. In this artifact, I wrote on the concept of public religion, or how religion can and should function in the public sphere of a post-secular society. Ultimately, following the work of Jose Casanova in Public Religions in the Modern World, I argued that the role of public religions is to both serve the political and social order, as well as to push and challenge it toward their own view of progress. Essentially, religion has become an important voice in the public sphere.

This paper also discussed more specific case studies of what popular understandings of religion have looked like in the public sphere of the US. First, the mainline protestant tradition made religion come an issue of the heart rather than public expression of faith. When religion becomes something you personally feel and experience, the application of it is private rather than public. This view of faith as personal rather than public helped shift toward this privatized understanding of the religious experience, and strongly influenced our understanding of the separation of church and state, which is essential to understand in the religious-political climate of America.

Further, the artifact explored GOP candidate Ben Carson’s statement that Muslims should not be considered for Presidential office. This shows the belief present in much of the country that the US’s public religion is a Judeo-Christian conception, rather than one rooted in pluralist acceptance of diversity. However, this respect and appreciation for diversity is essential to our democracy and to an inclusive public religion.

Finally, this writing explored how the Second Vatican Council shifted the identity of the Catholic Church shifted from being state-centered to society-centered, leaving profound international implications for the relationships between religions and states. The shift shows first and foremost that individual states and political entities can ensure freedom of conscience and decide their own religious fates. Further, it is a sign that the Church recognized the globalization of the world, and the diminishing importance of borders when it comes to social, political, and economic activities – we are more and more interconnected and transient between borders, so it makes sense for the Church to shift toward that trans-national lens. The implications will likely follow for other trans-national religious bodies to embrace such a model to remain relevant in the post-secular society we live in.

Application: Change

The mastery of this learning objective helped me refine the framework from which I function when I view interfaith dialogue occurring in public spaces. Recognizing the complexity of various understanding of that relationship, from the Catholic church’s institutional influence to Ben Carson’s political wielding to mainline Protestantism’s cultural impact, public religion is not a simple thing to tackle. However, interfaith dialogue is wrapped up in this public religion, and we must understand the history from which public religion conversations emerge in order to direct the path moving forward. This is essential for interfaith leaders in the diverse 21st century public sphere, and as a result of this course, my understanding of how to do so was significantly developed.



Learning Objective 6Demonstrate the interpersonal and engagement skills necessary for effective leaders in a global community or organization.

Artifact: Collaboration: Assignment 1 – “Interfaith Action: Embracing Diversity through Collaboration”

Application: Rationale

In Assignment 1 of ‘Collaboration,’ a paper entitled Interfaith Action: Embracing Diversity though Collaboration, I demonstrated the interpersonal and engagement skills necessary for effective leaders in a global community or organization. First, my style of leadership in interfaith action is very interpersonal; the way I manage projects and even conflicts is through a respect for relationships at the core. The paper shows my style as an engaged participant in the projects I take on, being a connector and motivator for interfaith projects to occur, whether it be with community members or student organizations. By building relationships with the stakeholders of our projects, as well as between the stakeholders themselves, we create an interpersonal accountability to one another and our tasks. Additionally, as the connector of the group, if there is a misunderstanding, I am usually the mediator between the parties. For instance, a secular group and a faith group who felt like they were hurt by the other is a situation that I was asked to help mediate. As a non-religious person doing interfaith work, this also made me a natural bridge-builder. The inter-personal style I outlined in my paper is the same approach I take to conflict issues as well as general collaborative encouragement.

Additionally, as a leader I create ample opportunities for small group dialogue that explored those differences, encouraging an open environment where we collectively built understanding and relationships. By first helping create relationships between committee members and between organizations, the collaborative projects naturally grew from there. Additionally, we really sought to create an environment that encouraged unlikely collaborations as much as possible – like the Mosque and the Church, the secular and the religious, etc. Our synthesis of these diverse perspective was aimed at unity, not uniformity, and our committee structure really favored for this coming together to occur.

Application: Change

The collaboration course, demonstrated through this paper, helped me dig deeper into my interpersonal and engagement skills than ever before. Articulating the role that I play in my organization and broader interfaith community helped me realize my strengths as a leader and encouraged me to embrace them in more intentional ways. By taking note of the perception of my role in the community that our members have, which is someone who instills passion and moves people toward action, has led me to view this as my main purpose in interfaith engagement. I can help create interfaith leaders both on campuses and in communities by being authentic to myself, sharing my stories, and encouraging them to develop their own stories. These skills go beyond my own community, and I will continue to use these transformational leadership skills that are rooted in interpersonal engagement.


Creating Unity through Diversity: “Nous Sommes Unis”

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on Nov. 19, 2015.

Over this past weekend, we were once again reminded of the extremism that seeks to divide us. From the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed over 120 people, to the less-publicized suicide bombings in Beirut that killed over 40, we saw the power that these acts of violence and hatred have on our communities.

However, at the same time, there was an outpouring of love to cancel out the hatred, and light to drown out the darkness. In Paris, within hours of the attacks, people started opening their doors to offer safety to those unable to get home or who just needed help. This was all motivated by the hashtag #PorteOuverte, which translates to Open Door, and Parisians used the hashtag to offer shelter to those who needed it. Entire Sikh Gurdwaras, the houses of worship in the Sikh religion, opened their doors to anyone who needed assistance or security.

Another hashtag campaign started overnight after the Paris attacks as well: #NousSommesUnis. Translating to We Are United, it became a way of responding to the hatred and violence in a way to show the terrorists that while they may have succeeded in the attacks, they will not have the last word. People responded to these acts of extreme violence by saying that they will not become a divided community like the perpetrators want; instead, Paris and the world at large will respond with a greater effort toward coexistence, peace, and unity.

While ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks in both Paris and Beirut, let us not fall into the trap of Islamophobia that only hurts us all and furthers the rift between our communities that ISIS is trying to heighten.  Instead, we must continue to respond with open doors and declarations of unity. If we do so, and build this movement around unity and understanding through diversity, we will overpower these forces of violence and intolerance in our world.

For those of us in West Michigan, what can we do locally to help achieve this? While we may not experience such extreme violence, we still see intolerance and misunderstanding within our community. As our schools, hospitals, neighborhoods and communities are becoming increasingly diverse, and our differences increasingly visible, we have to revolutionize our approach to difference. While we are taught and often see in the media difference as something negative or scary, we must overcome these biases and instead seek to find the similarities and the enriching lessons from these moments of diversity.

Dialogue and cooperation are among the best ways to build united communities that embrace diversity instead of shy away from it. Interfaith involvement, bringing our whole selves into that dialogue and cooperation, is distinctively suited to help us heal and build from experiences of violence like the ones from last weekend. Through interfaith engagement, we are able to acknowledge the differences that make us unique while also appreciating the shared values and similarities that reveal our common humanity.

If you want to be a part of a movement that believes our differences enrich our community rather than challenge or diminish it, we invite you to attend the Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration. Under the theme of Unity through Diversity, this year’s service is taking place on Monday, November 23rd, 7 p.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church. More information is available at www.interfaithunderstanding.org.

In responding to the violence around the world, we must be global citizens as well as local leaders, proving that we can achieve unity through diversity.