Farewell Interfaith Insight: Why This “None” is Going to Divinity School

This Interfaith Insight appeared in the Kaufman Interfaith Institute Inform on 7/18/17 and in the Grand Rapids Press on 7/20/17. 

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I am writing this Insight as my final piece working for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute. Having been the Program Manager for the last four years, and as a college intern before that, the interfaith community across west Michigan has become my own community.

However, the time has come for me to build community elsewhere, and that place will be Harvard Divinity School in Boston. This fall, I will begin studies on religion, politics and ethics through their Master of Theological Studies program, learning alongside students of all religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds.

So in this final piece, I wanted to answer the question that many of you have asked me over the last four years: why do I, as a non-religious person, do interfaith work? And more relevant to my current plans, would would a non-religious person go to divinity school?

As I have written previously, I am one of those millennial “Nones,” a term that Pew Research coined to include the over one in three people under the age of 30 who are atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious, and basically anyone who would check on a form, “None of the Above” in regards to religious or spiritual identity.

Being a so-called “None” who convenes and facilitates religiously diverse interfaith spaces, my secular identity has often come up. Almost always the reaction I get is one of surprise and confusion. “But, if you’re not religious, why are you interested in religion?” Or phrased differently, “If you don’t have a faith, why would you be involved with interfaith?”

I never felt the need to ask myself this question until I moved to Grand Rapids. In my undergraduate studies, while certain stereotypes existed against atheists, I was never questioned as to why I was in such spaces. In my religious studies and political science classes, it was clear why I and my secular counterparts cared about learning about religion. Religion, spirituality, and faith were important to us – not only in our political activities nationally and internationally, but in people’s lives – in their activism, organizing, and careers.

For me, it was obvious: religion still matters. It was important for me to understand the traditions and followers in order to understand the world I am a part of. It makes my study of history, politics, and activism deeper and more authentic to the human experience, of which religion is such an integral part for so many individuals and communities.

While I may not be a person of faith, I am a part of a world where faith is an active dynamic affecting all of our lives. To engage with interfaith was a way of appreciating this aspect of existence, with an emphasis toward the lived experiences of people’s stories of faith as well as the doctrines that shape our lives and institutions.

Over these four years of organizing interfaith efforts in west Michigan, our dialogues and service projects did more than teach me new things about religious traditions. Each conversation, each relationship, quickly invoked a sense of “holy envy” in me. A term from Krister Stendahl, the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, holy envy is the recognition of something so beautiful in another person’s tradition that you wish to reflect it in your own tradition.

Realizing how deepening I found interfaith work to be, both personally and professionally, I sought to continue this formation through divinity school.

But this leads to a second question you may be asking: why does a Divinity School let in someone who does not necessarily believe in the Divine? What even is Divinity School?

To many people’s surprise, Divinity School is about much more than training future pastors and ministers. Most notably, places like Harvard Divinity School and many others leading schools have programs that intentionally reflect the religious and non-religious diversity of our country. Harvard itself has multiple theological and ministry initiatives around all religious traditions, not just the Christian tradition.

Further, more and more atheists and spiritual seekers are attending divinity school out of a desire for grounded, morally-rooted education toward careers in activism, social work, and community organizing. Instead of the pulpit, though, these leaders are taking their divinity school skills into the streets, political offices, non-profit organizations, and more.

Specifically, I chose Harvard Divinity School because, as leaders they just marked their 200-year-anniversary, they are on the forefront of the conversation around the future of religious life in America. This is a future that they recognize not only includes the secular, the spiritual, and the seeking, but it is a future that needs these voices in particular to shape our society and communities that will serve all.

It is in this space that I wish to bring my experiences learned from Grand Rapids over the last four years into a place where we can imagine what the future of our shared public life looks like – across the religious, spiritual and secular diversity that too often divides us. After all, in the enduring words of civil rights leader Vincent Harding, we live in a time that calls us “to see visions of life beyond the old boundaries, to search out the new common ground.”

I hope to continue to be a part of this conversation beyond the old boundaries, and seeking out new common ground, both continuously in Grand Rapids, and in my new home in Boston.

For those I have worked with and gotten to know during my time at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, I want to thank you for the ways in which you have welcomed and challenged me in my growth as an individual, an interfaith leader, and as a human being seeking spiritual meaning. I hope to keep up with as many of you as possible during this next chapter in my life! Please never hesitate to reach out and stay in touch. My continuing email will be katiegordon24@gmail.com.

The Collective “We” of Interfaith Leadership

This article originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Working with religious diversity has never been particularly easy, but in the past year it has become more politicized and polarized than seemingly ever before.  However, because of this, the work has not only become more urgent, but it has also at times become more life threatening.

We have seen this most recently in Portland, Oregon, when three men were stabbed, and two killed, after intervening to protect two young girls of color who were being harassed with Islamophobic slurs. Religious minorities in America are living today in a state of anxiety, with their lives on the line, and it seems being an ally to them might mean the same as well.

This has caused me to reflect on how interfaith engagement of today is different than interfaith engagement of yesterday. In previous years, interfaith dialogue felt like a nice, feel-good exercise of unity, but now it feels more like an urgent response to divisive and violent forces actively pulling us apart across religious divides.

The past year in particular has exposed and made public the biases and hatred that have been brewing beneath the surface as the United States has become one of the most religiously diverse countries.

Diana Eck, scholar at Harvard University, has often noted the difference between diversity and pluralism: diversity–or the presence of diverse identities–is a fact of existence, but pluralism is the energetic engagement with that diversity. Pluralism is not tolerance alone, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Finally, pluralism is not a given but is achieved, through intentional engagement and dialogue.

We now see that as America was becoming more diverse, we were not necessarily becoming more pluralistic.

Amidst this changing climate, I have been working closely with students from various colleges and universities across west Michigan. We have come to see, together, how interfaith engagement has shifted to become a response to the political times we live in.

Houses of worship and sacred sites are vandalized with slurs and insults. People are yelled at and even sometimes murdered for looking, speaking or acting different. Policies are being signed that discriminate based on religious identity.

So what does it mean to be an interfaith leader amidst overt conflict and tension around religious identity and diversity?

Over this past year, my weekly dosage of hope and inspiration came from my time spent with four Interfaith Interns – one each at Aquinas College, Calvin College, Grand Valley State University, and Hope College. Despite and perhaps emboldened by the national climate, they each returned every week with new ideas to engage and positively affect the climate on their campuses and in our communities.

In the next four Interfaith Insights, we will feature stories from these students. In them, they call on our communities to embrace relationships and solidarity as foundational to the times we are living in. They remind us to recognize our own privileges to be better allies to religious minorities on our campuses and in the world. They suggest humility and love as values to guide our conversations and actions as we move forward in our collective path.

Of the lessons I have learned from the students the past year, the most important has been that interfaith leadership cannot and should not be a solitary journey. It is a mutual commitment to our collective fates and futures.

As engaging with religious difference and confronting religious bigotry has become both more urgent and uncertain, the interfaith movement is in a moment where leadership must be embraced as a collective “we” rather than individual “I.” We should not ask what I can do alone, but instead ask what is possible when we start working together.

Whether our relationships provide us spiritual renewal and sustenance, physical allyship on the frontlines, or motivation to speak out publicly against discrimination, we can no longer use a leadership paradigm where we focus on the individual’s role. Instead, we need a framework that centers on our collective responsibility. Interfaith leadership done well is inherently and most effectively done when it is relational and communal.

As we continue living in uncertain and unstable times, relationships and community provide essential foundation and inspiration to do this work. Over the next four weeks as we share the Interfaith Interns’ reflections from their own experiences in interfaith leadership, we hope you find that hope glimmering below the surface of our current public life.

After all, we are all needed in the commitment to a more diverse and pluralistic future for all.

Nuns and Nones: Conversation at intersection of contemporary religious, secular life

Originally appeared in the Rapidian (April 11, 2017). This is an extended version of my blog published on April 10, 2017 about Nuns & Nones: The Beginning.

A few months ago, I wrote two articles on the trend in American religious life that has been dubbed by Pew Research as “the Rise of the ‘Nones.’” This language of the “Nones” is an umbrella term meant to include anyone who falls into a “none of the above” situation when filling out demographic information about their religious tradition. Including atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particular,” according to recent surveys the Nones now account for the second largest religious group in America, resulting in roughly one in four overall, and one in three millennials. (Source)

My first article explored how many of these Nones are building meaningful communities outside of religious institutions, and the second article suggested what religious institutions and Nones might be able to learn from one another.

As a so-called None myself, I was interested to see how religious leaders in our city would respond to these pieces. To my delight, a Dominican Sister emailed to let me know how she appreciated the perspective and wanted to learn more about and from the Nones.

When we sat down and talked, the similarities between her group, the Nuns, and my group, the Nones, became so obvious. Both Nuns and Nones are on the margins or fringes of our traditions. Both Nuns and Nones have a track record of challenging institutions in order to promote inclusion and justice. Both Nuns and Nones are seeking community that is open to questions and the continuous search for meaning.

From my own one-on-one relationships with Catholic Nuns, and particularly the Dominican Sisters, I knew how much there would be for us to learn from each other. Based in our shared values, this inter-generational space would lead to conversations about how to sustain ourselves for decades in movements for social justice, how to stay connected with one another in a technological world that has the potential for isolation, and so much more.

Knowing how many Millennial Nones like myself desire spaces to learn from those who came before us, and realizing how older women who are religious desire spaces to connect with younger generations and their energetic engagement with the world around them, we set the first time and place to gather the Nuns and the Nones.

This past weekend, 17 of us came together – a balance between older women who are religious, millennial who are non-religious, and those in between – generationally and religiously.

We talked about the potential limitation or spaciousness of labels and identities. We talked about how questions never go away – but only deepen and gain meaning with age. We talked about how while many of us were taught that religion is black and white, spirituality can be that space in between meant for searching and discovery. We talked about the “deepest questions and unanswered wonderings” of our lives. We asked each other how we “fit” as a human family, how we feed ourselves in sustaining our activism, and what we are looking for in community. We talked about the difference between the community of church and the institution of church, the horizontal and the vertical. We talked about how we seek validation that it is okay to ask and seek, and we received that validation from one another. We were reminded to believe in one another, be okay with failure, look at the long view of history, and that perfect can be the enemy of good.

The words we closed with were ones of renewal, hope, inspiration, gratefulness, generosity, belonging, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is (maybe womanspiration?).

What excites me most about this gathering is what it indicates beyond Grand Rapids, and beyond the Nuns and the Nones. Similar gatherings to this one are happening across the country, which also grew out of the desire for inter-generational community building around spirituality and social justice. What this reveals about the future of religious life, I hope, is that we will continue to open up spaces that cross the divisions that religion tends to create. Whether divided by generations or traditions, we forget how much there is to learn from one another, and the potential of growing alongside one another. Even with messy, newly created labels like the Nones, and rich, historic staples of religious life like the Nuns, current trends of secular life can be in conversation with long histories of religious life, and we can both be better for it.

Nuns & Nones: The Beginning

A few months ago, I wrote two articles on how Nones are building seemingly religious communities, and what Nones and religious people can learn from each other.

It inspired Sisters from the Dominican Center to email me, letting me know how they appreciated the perspective and valued the knowledge of Nones.

I admit I was surprised to learn of the interest from our local women religious in those of us who are outside our traditions – the Nones, the non-religious, the spiritual but not religious.

But once I sat down and talked with them, it became so obvious. Both Nuns and Nones are on the margins or fringes of our traditions. Both Nuns and Nones challenge institutions in order to promote justice. Both Nuns and Nones are seeking community open to questions and searching for meaning.

And there’s also so much we can learn from one another. How to sustain ourselves for decades in movements for social justice. How to stay connected with one another in a technological world that has the potential for isolation. How our different generational perspectives shape our worldview in varied and meaningful ways.

Tonight was our first gathering of Nuns & Nones! Graciously hosted by the Dominican Center, 17 of us came together – a balance between older women religious, millennial non-religious, and those in between – generationally and religiously.

We talked about the potential limitation or spaciousness of labels and identities. We talked about how questions never go away – but only deepen and gain meaning with age. We talked about how while many of us were taught that religion is black and white, it’s actually more of a gray space meant for searching and discovery. We talked about the “deepest questions and unanswered wonderings” of our lives. We asked each other how we “fit” as a human family, how we feed ourselves in sustaining our activism, and what we are looking for in community. We talked about the difference between the community of church and the institution of church, the horizontal and the vertical. We talked about how we seek validation that it is okay to ask and seek, and we received that validation from one another.  We were reminded to believe in one another, be okay with failure, look at the long view of history, and that perfect can be the enemy of good.

The words we closed with were ones of renewal, hope, inspiration, gratefulness, spaciousness, belonging, validation, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is (maybe womanspiration?).

I’m so excited to keep building community with so many women I admire so deeply. And I’m so honored to be in relationship with my community in this way.

I hope this reveals a bit of the future of religious life in America – one at the intersections, open to evolution and revolution, based in relationships and dialogue and growth – together.

C3: The Interfaith Movement & Millennial Generation

On Sunday, April 9th, I delivered the “teaching” or a sort of “secular sermon” at C3: West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection. Building upon my first visit, where I shared stories of the so-called “Nones” and building community, I spoke about the interfaith youth movement and why millennials are particularly drawn into interfaith spaces. The description is below, the readings we shared in the program are under that, and the video can be watched here or audio can be found here. Hope you enjoy!

Katie will explore the interfaith movement in the US today, and particularly the way young people are using the interfaith movement as a way of promoting social change on campuses and in their community. As Millennials, who are significantly more non-religious and unaffiliated than previous generations, are leading this movement, what unique perspectives do they bring to interfaith work? And how is interfaith uniquely equipped as a space for young people to understand their identity, build inclusive community, and promote social change? Grounded in her own story as a Millennial-None-Interfaith Activist, Katie will share insights from her years as a part of the interfaith movement in America.

I am not from east or west
not up from the ground
or out of the ocean
my place is placeless
a trace of the traceless
I belong to the beloved
-Rumi

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
-Edwin Markham

My heart has grown capable of taking on all forms
It is a pasture for gazelles
A table for the Torah
A convent for Christians
Ka’bah for the Pilgrim
Whichever the way love’s caravan shall lead
That shall be the way of my faith
-Ibn Arabi

we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
-Gwendolyn Brooks

Conversations on religion, media and Islamophobia with Simran Jeet Singh

Last week, I spent two days with Simran Jeet Singh – a scholar-activist who works at the intersections of religion, politics, and media. As a Sikh-American, and as a professor of religion, he is able to provide both comprehensive academic grounding and moving personal narratives to illuminate the challenges of religious identity and diversity in America today.

In addition to his talk on “Islamophobia, Hate Crimes, and the Racialization of Religious Identity” at Grand Valley State University, which will have a video up soon, I interviewed him for Catalyst Radio on his work around media and religion. To read the summary & listen to the Soundcloud link, click here. 

He was also interviewed on WGVU by Mariano Avila, local Inclusion Reporter. Listen to his report here.

Troubled times call for action: Loving Thy Neighbor

This article originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on Thursday, March 16, 2017.

“Powerful things are built in troubled times,” Eboo Patel reminded the crowd of hundreds of college students. I was at a gathering with student interfaith leaders from across the country, and we were hungry for words of inspiration from Patel, the founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core. Convened in Atlanta, Georgia for an Interfaith Leadership Institute in late January, the tone of the conference and his keynote had a darker, more urgent tone than usual.
The three-day interfaith leadership training took place during a tumultuous weekend: it began on the Friday that the first Presidential Order banning travel from Muslim-majority countries was signed into effect, and it ended on a Sunday when six Muslims were shot and killed in their Mosque in Quebec City, Canada.

While these events took place over a month ago, the trend of violence has continued. On Feb. 22, an Indian-American man was shot and murdered in a bar outside of Kansas City, Kansas, after having “Get out of my country” yelled at him. On March 3, a Sikh-American man was getting out of his car, in his home’s driveway outside of Seattle, Washington, when a gunman approached him, saying “Go back to your own country,” then shot him in the arm. On March 10, a man in St. Lucie, Florida, attempted to burn a store down in order to ‘run the Arabs out of our country,’ presuming the owners of Indian descent to be Muslim.

In all three of these instances, it becomes clear that not just Muslims, but also those perceived to be Muslim, are experiencing stereotyping, violence and discrimination that reveals the troubled times of our country. For those who are religiously, ethnically, or racially marginalized by the hostile rhetoric and policies perpetuated in our public sphere, the threat is significant: safety, well-being, and livelihood are on the line.

However, as Patel reminded us, powerful things are built in troubled times such as these. Both locally and nationally, inspiring coalitions of support and solidarity are popping up, built on interfaith networks and communities that have existed for years.

In Grand Rapids, our college and university campuses are hosting Solidarity Dinners, meant to encourage dialogue and action around principles of solidarity. At Grand Valley State University’s Dinner, students from various worldviews expressed their shared values, and encouraged the 200-plus attendees to write cards of support to local mosques and refugee families. The cards were then hand-delivered to those in our community who have been targets of misunderstanding and hostility.

And across the country, a new campaign was just launched by Auburn Seminary, the Groundswell Movement, and the Sikh Coalition, stating that “when hate targets our neighbors, we stand together in solidarity.” Written as a petition, particularly to “Our Muslim and Jewish Siblings,” the letter outlines how faith communities are experiencing increased threats of violence in the streets and in their houses of worship under an administration that targets and marginalizes religious minorities. The petition encourages communities to do just what West Michigan students are already doing: display acts of solidarity to those marginalized in one’s community through letters of support and showing up for one another.

Locally and nationally, these examples show we can counter the hateful rhetoric and violent incidents in our daily actions and immediate community.

The strength in these responses comes from the broad-based alliance they inherently create. When violence and discrimination affects multiple faith communities, the response must be in-kind. Through a coalition-response, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, and all others unite around the shared concern of loving our neighbors. After all, loving thy neighbor is about more than common ground, it is a way to embrace the common life we share in America.