A new vision for leadership from the intersections

Repost from Interfaith Insight, Grand Rapids Press, March 17

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes).

Eboo Patel, founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core, often points to this famous verse by Walt Whitman as both a celebration of the joy of variety as well as a recognition of the inevitable tensions of diversity – not only among our groups, but even within ourselves.

At the core of interfaith cooperation lies a seemingly simple claim: Our identities inform and inspire our actions. Yet when we dig into this idea, our identity does not remain simple for long. It quickly becomes quite complex. What do we believe, and why do we believe it? What values do we hold, and where did those come from? What other aspects of our identity do we hold close?

When we answer those questions, many of us pull on not only our religious, spiritual or secular identity – but the other parts of us as well. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and more influence our identities and interactions with this world.

With this enlarged sense of identity and diversity, which regards the whole person rather than only one aspect of a person, the potential for dialogue and cooperation also expands. We begin to see the richness that comes in seeing a whole person in their complexity, rather than isolating just one aspect of who they are.

So when we come to interfaith work, it is not just our faith orientation that influences us, but also how we identify and find meaning more broadly.

For example, I do this work not only because I am enriched by learning the beliefs and values of my neighbors, but also because I believe interfaith is inherently social justice work. I do this not just to promote understanding, but also to build a movement toward, in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, a “beloved community.”

The sort of leadership this movement-building requires is one where we can bring our whole selves, and our whole communities, to the table. This leadership from the intersections of our identities is embodied through many young people I have come to know as emerging interfaith and multi-faith leaders across our country. One of those leaders will be in Grand Rapids later this month as our Annual Rabbi Phillip Sigal Lecturer: the Rev. Jennifer Bailey.

Bailey holds her multitudes together to inform her multi-faith organizing for social justice. Born, raised, and ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, Bailey finds inspiration from her denomination – the oldest historically-black denomination in the United States, which has organized for racial justice and equality in the past and present.

Bailey sees these overlapping identities as an opportunity for an interconnected struggle and intersectional movement for racial and interfaith justice.

The organization she founded and now directs, Faith Matters Network, lifts up the power of transformative, leader-full movements that reflect the full diversity of our communities. By equipping these leaders with tools and inspiration to build movements across differences to transform social structures for a more just, compassionate society, Faith Matters Network is a sign of the potential of embracing the wholeness of our identities and communities.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, this interfaith and intersectional leadership not only brings together our communities, but also our deepest senses of self and being.

To learn more about this vision and attend Bailey’s lecture on “Racial and Interfaith Justice: A New Vision for Leadership from the Intersections,” find more information on our website: www.interfaithunderstanding.org.