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.


Interfaith, civic organizations unite to sponsor conversation on welcoming refugees

The following post originally appeared in The Rapidian on March 1, 2016, and can be found here.

In November 2015, following the Paris terrorist attacks, Michigan was the first state whose governor proposed to “pause” allowing Syrian refugees into the United States. This concern around security was a response to the recent ISIS terrorist attacks permeating Western borders in France. To fuel this fear, because of a Syrian passport that was left near the Paris bombings, it was assumed that somehow a Syrian refugee was associated with the terrorist attack, although this was later disproved since the passport was stolen or fake. Further, what was often left out of the media coverage was that these refugees are fleeing the same violence from ISIS that is also affecting so many towns in Syria. Despite these facts that counter reasons to be fearful of refugees, xenophobia and Islamophobia continue to manifest through our public rhetoric and political grandstanding.

While the anti-refugee drama and debate continued on state-wide and national stages, we went about our work in Grand Rapids. In fact, as soon as the day after Governor Rick Snyder’s statements, since his positioning had no actual impact on policy or funding, Syrian refugees were settled into our community thanks to local agencies.

Our local leaders have also promoted a more positive conversation around refugees. Previous mayor George Heartwell stated, about the fear and hate-driven anti-refugee sentiments:

“Neither must we turn this event into a witch-hunt that would sweep innocent people up in its nets. If we use this terror to turn xenophobic, to repel freedom-seeking people at our borders, or to look unkindly at those whose faith is other than our own, then the terrorists will have succeeded and the end of the American soul cannot be far away.

I, for one, refuse to be afraid. I refuse to hate. I refuse to respond to violence with suspicion of my neighbor. Today I call on you, the citizens of this great city, to do the same.”

It is this call that local interfaith community and refugee agencies are answering to as we plan for an upcoming community conversation on engaging with local refugee services.

On Tuesday, March 8 from 7-9 p.m., Welcoming Refugees: Do Unto Others, will bring together everyone from churches and mosques to businesses and schools, to learn from, engage with and support our local refugee and immigrant communities. The event is sponsored by over 50 religious organizations and civic institutions, which have signed on to strengthen our message of hospitality over hatred. Inspired by the golden rule found in all traditions, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” we hope to motivate congregations and communities to put this value into action by welcoming our new neighbors. Finally, situated on the evening of Michigan’s primary election, we aim to show elected officials that our community will continue to come together to support refugees.

In addition to inspiring shared values toward a common good, we want to continue to shift the narrative around refugees.

To help us articulate this more inclusive narrative, our program will feature representatives from the local city, from the Michigan Office for New Americans, the local refugee agencies Bethany Christian Services and Lutheran Social Services, as well as refugees who have come to call Grand Rapids their new home. One story we’ll hear that night is from Mustafa, an Iraqi refugee that worked alongside the US army in the Gulf War, who recently resettled here in Grand Rapids. Additionally, we’ll hear the story of Flory, Elodie, Abigael and Benedicte, a family that fled from violence in Congo only to be separated due to more conflict in Uganda, and have happily been reunited after four years apart in Grand Rapids just a few months ago.

Stories like these two are found in the experiences of nearly all refugees in our own community, refugees that come from all around the world to escape violence and find security and safety in our country. Regarding the Syrian refugees that have become a “political issue,” those that we often conflate with ISIS are suffering from such violence even more than us, and many of whom were driven out of their homes from the same terrorism that created anti-refugee sentiment here in the United States. Whether or not to welcome refugees isn’t a political debate, it’s a moral concern- and a humanitarian imperative. If we truly “do unto others” like many of our traditions tell us to, then we will welcome refugees as our new neighbors, colleagues, community leaders and friends.

To join us on the evening of March 8, please register here. Join us and the dozens of co-sponsoring organizations to be a part of shifting the narrative around refugees, and to ensure that Grand Rapids continues to welcome our new neighbors.
More information is on the Kaufman Interfaith Institute site and the Welcoming Others Facebook event page.