C3 Talk: Friendship as a Spiritual and Revolutionary Practice

On March 18, when I was back in Michigan over spring break, I got to visit C3: West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection and give a talk on the good life. This was my fourth time speaking at C3, and my first since leaving the Kaufman Interfaith Institute and starting at Harvard Divinity School, so it was a treat to be back with a community that has seen me, my work, and my ideas evolve over the last few years. Plus, the conversation we are able to have before and after the service itself always deepens and expands my understandings of the topics I share with the community.

Below is the text of the “secular sermon” that I gave, and the video can be watched online soon, or found on their Facebook page.

The first time I considered the question of the good life was my first year in college, when I took a class on happiness and the good life. One of the books we read was Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a true story about Chris McCandless, a young man who refused the wealth of his family, gave away all his savings, got rid of his possessions, and set out on a journey into the Alaskan wilderness.

In the wild, living off the land, one day Chris accidently ate a poisonous plant and ended up facing his imminent death. In the last moments of his life – moments spent alone, isolated from society and family – he scribbles notes in the margins of a book he was reading. The words he wrote in these last moments of his life were: “Happiness is only real when shared.”

“Happiness is only real when shared.”

Whether intentionally or not, this has shaped much of my own approach to attempting a good life over the years. Looking back, I see that relationships are at the core of all work I engage in. In Model United Nations during my college years, relationships created coalitions and shaped policy proposals. In my interfaith work, relationships transcended differences in theology and tradition. And in my media and radio work, relationships enriched and deepened interviews.

Then… as you may know, this past summer I left Grand Rapids and moved to Boston to study at Harvard Divinity School. Alongside my classes, I now work with the How We Gather team, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, and Sue Phillips, who are the Ministry Innovation Fellows at Harvard Divinity School.

Their work began with the initial report entitled How We Gather, looking at where non-religious and unaffiliated millennials find community when they leave behind religious institutions. The communities they studied in this report were places like the Sanctuaries, a multi-racial, multi-religious arts and social change community in Washington DC, The Dinner Party, a monthly dinner held at people’s homes for those experiencing the loss of a parent, and even Soul Cycle and Cross Fit, organizations with an evangelical zeal that focus on personal and communal transformation through fitness.

Over these past four years, they have convened the leaders of these communities, and learned much about this world of spiritual community building today. The newest report they published – just this past week – explores that new, yet actually very old, work of caring for souls. Thus, the Care of Souls report names the emerging religious landscape we see today, and names the roles that are required for the work.

In Care of Souls, Casper, Angie and Sue suggest that the task now is to bridge the ancient and the emergent, and to discover how to apply wisdom to new generations. Their central question, and the thrust of my work alongside them, is: “How do we care for souls in the 21st century and beyond?”

I share all of this to introduce the context from which I now enter into this question of the good life. Beginning as a college freshman, hearing the words that “happiness is only real when shared,” to now in a calling centered on community and care, there seems to be a thread that suggests what my own good life has been rooted in: friendship as a spiritual and revolutionary practice.

WHY WE SHOULD TAKE FRIENDSHIP SERIOUSLY

 It’s only in this last year I started to take friendship as a spiritual and political practice seriously. After first noticing it as a powerful presence in my own community-building, I started noticing it explicitly discussed in theological and philosophical practices of spirituality and movement-building.

And none of this is new or radical, I think it’s something we all feel in our bones. But to speak for myself at least – I often forget. I forget the transformation possible through deep friendship. In this hyper-individualized society, we’re all taught, conditioned, and expected to make our own selves our own bottom line.

So the reason I chose to share about friendship today is because I think friendship tends to be something that we don’t take seriously enough, or something that we sell short, lacking an appreciation of its power. After all, while we’re more connected digitally than ever – we have thousands of Facebook friends and twitter followers at our fingertips – we’re actually more isolated than ever before.

In recent decades, researchers have discovered that loneliness left untreated is not just psychically painful; it also can have serious medical consequences. Studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Isolation has become a public health epidemic in the modern world.

So, responding to this epidemic of loneliness and crisis of isolation, and looking to a vision of the good life based in authentic and transformative relationships, what I want to share is several teachings on the role of friendship. Through these insights from various communities, texts, theologies and philosophies, I hope to begin to uncover the tradition of friendship as something to embrace as a spiritual and even revolutionary practice.

TEACHINGS ON FRIENDSHIP

 There are six short examples of what this looks like.

 About one year ago, along with the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, we started gatherings called “Nuns & Nones” a meeting of Catholic women religious and non-religious millennials. Many unexpected friendships immediately flourished from that space, and the inter-generational nature of these friendships made them even more special. These friendships between 20-somethings and 70-somethings rooted the group in a larger sense of time and a deeper sense of hope; they swapped strategies for change and tools for resilience; they shared histories of oppression and stories of liberation. After gathering about twice a month from last year April until now, one Sister even said that the highlight of her year was building friendships through this unlikely community. Nuns and Nones taught me that friendship has the ability to cross social barriers and transform us at any age.

Particularly among women, friendship can transform ourselves individually and in community. In Sister Joan Chittister’s book “Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible”, the feminist Benedictine Nun reclaims a history of feminine friendships that have been lost to the patriarchal storytellers through the ages. What I learned from Joan is that Friendship is a spiritual resource to tap into for strength, support, and empowerment, particularly for women who have been shut out of traditional forms of political power. Joan claims friendship not just as public “alliances of the court and castle,” but as a “personal tradition of spiritual friendship.” She follows in the tradition of St. Augustine and believes that “human relationships are the ground of growth.”

 However, this transformative, vulnerable friendship shows up not just in women’s lives. One of my favorite examples of deep friendship is between two Irish poets, David Whyte and the late John O’Donahue, who have frequently talked about their friendship and dedicated poems to one another. John O’Donahue, who died in 2008, wrote a book based on the Celtic idea of Anam Cara – translating to SOUL FRIEND. As he writes: “In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the ‘friend of your soul.’” Friendship, for these poets, then, is a purposeful presence, an intentional integrity toward one another. In o’Donahue’s words, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.” Again, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”

It is also the nature of friendship across category, across difference that has a transformative power on people – not just personally, but in their political lives. Whether it is across differences in religious conviction or come from different generations, the practice of building friendship can lead to what Hannah Arendt called “thinking without bannisters.” Arendt, a 20th century philosopher, believed that friendship had political relevance and importance. And the essence of friendship existed in discourse, a discourse that through its practice the world is “rendered humane.” Friendship then, for Arendt, has the power to rehumanize us to one another and those unlike us, liberating us to think without bannisters which too often divide us.

In a new book, entitled “Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times,” writers Nick Montgomery and carla bergman view friendship as the root of freedom. They remind us that “Friend’ and ‘free’ in English come from the same Indo-European root, which conveys the idea of a shared power that grows. Being free and having ties was one and the same thing. I am free because I have ties; I am free because I am linked to a reality greater than me.” Embracing the relational interdependency of friendship, then, is a revolutionary method of freedom; it is a freedom that releases us from the capitalistic profit-driven world and thus re-centers us on one another and the ways in which we can mutually support each other. In Joyful Militancy, friendship is a way to resist, a path for freedom, and a tool for collective liberation.

Friendship is a powerful element in many faith communities as well. One community in particular centers their entire theology on friendship. The Community of Sant’Egidio is a lay Catholic community founded in Rome exactly 50 years ago, and today holds a global presence in prayer, dialogue, and peace work in 73 countries with over 60,000 members. This global movement all started with a group of high schoolers in 1968 inspired by their faith to live into the gospel in radical, counter-cultural ways. Living out the gospel to them meant building friendships with the poor and marginalized, and letting all ministries and actions to follow from those friendships. In each community and each country now, Sant’Egidio members build friendships with the marginalized in their context, and let that friendship determine what accompaniment and advocacy looks like. Sant’Egidio sees the practice of faith as a call to friendship, a friendship that Jesus modeled as a transformational path of peace. They believe that a “glimpse of the Kingdom can be born through prayer and friendship with the poor.”

Through these examples, we can see the personal, communal, and political transformation possible through friendship.

The intergenerational friendships in Nuns & Nones. The spiritual friendship of women named by Sr. Joan Chittister. The “soul friend” connection beautifully articulated by poet John O’Donahue. The practice of friendship rehumanizing us to one another, taught by Hannah Arendt. The interdependency of friendship as a path to freedom for the authors of Joyful Militancy. And the Sant’Egidio model offers friendship as the foundation for living into peace and justice work.

In each of these cases, Friendship leads to resilience and sustenance… resistance and freedom… and faith and advocacy. Friendship is the process and the end, the method and the goals. From faith leaders and philosophers to poets and activists, friendship plays a central role in their personal and public lives. Friendship is not only what sustains us, but it liberates us; friendship not only inspires us, but it transforms us.

As we today – and this month – ask what the good life looks like, what caring for souls in the 21st century means to our communities – what answer does friendship provide? How can the wisdom of friendship from both ancient and emergent sources respond to today’s needs?

The poet John O’Donahue, in one of his last interviews before his death, reminded us that friendship is vital to our whole spirit – to our being, our character, our mind, and our health. But so many of us, he says, forget and don’t spend enough time with the friendships in our lives.

I know certainly for myself, I am guilty of this. Too often, I am caught up living a productive life, rather than a good life. I usually measure my days by how many things I cross off my to-do list, rather than how many conversations I had with friends.

“My friends are my estate,” wrote Emily Dickinson. In other words, friends are the wealth we will have at the end of our lives; they are the treasure we accrue.

What if we all measured our life this way, instead of by the hours worked, emails sent, or money earned? I think if we remember friendship at the beginnings and ends of our days, and the starts and closes of our weeks, we could all get a deeper sense of a good life. Or at least the good life that is possible through a shared life.

As Joan Chittister says, “It is surely, then, of the highest spiritual order to celebrate the Sacrament of Friendship.”

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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. 

———–

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.

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

Malala represents the next generation of interfaith leaders

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on October 14, 2014.

The leadership of the next generation looks like Malala Yousafzai: a hopeful, determined young person, embracing pluralism and striving to make her community – both locally and globally – more just and equal.

Last week, we saw interfaith in action when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, “a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, [who are a part of the] common struggle for education and against extremism,” in the words of prize committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland. We saw proof that the values that unite us are stronger than the forces that divide us, and we started to see the potential of coming together to contribute to the greater good.

In a world where our media is consumed with stories of violence and conflict, this was a refreshing narrative. However, while not adequately recognized and celebrated, this example of leadership can be found in nearly every community, including our own.

For the past two years, Grand Valley State University has sent several students to Interfaith Youth Core’s Leadership Institute, where students learn about other traditions not through a textbook, but through relationships with their peers. Muslims and Jews, atheists and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists develop friendships based in understanding differences and celebrating common values.

Inherent in this coming together is the desire to serve not only our own communities, but all communities, regardless of belief tradition. Better Together @ GVSU, a new student group formed out of this conference, embodies this conviction: We can do more than get along, we can work alongside one another.

This is the only model of social change that has any hope of making an impact on a significant scale in the complex issues we face today – from racism and all forms of discrimination to promoting peace in conflict regions. Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, are the perfect generation to lead us to embrace such radical acceptance. As the newly largest and most diverse generation in the U.S., according to Pew Research, which found that 43 percent of millennials are non-white, we interact with people who are different from ourselves every day. We can either use that as a barrier to divide or we can build bridges of cooperation. 

This is why I was so encouraged at our luncheon on Sept. 11, which announced our 2015 Year of Interfaith Service. When a college student and high school student shared their own insights with a crowd of more than 60 community leaders, the sense of hope was palpable. Those in the room saw the leaders that could help our city be a more inclusive and understanding community. 

At that luncheon, local political, business and religious leaders agreed: In order for our 2015 Year of Interfaith Service to have the greatest impact — not just for this one year but for years moving forward — it must be an inter-generational effort. We must learn from the young people in our communities, our own Malalas, who are leading the way in creating a respectful dialogue and an inclusive common good. 

Our “Kairos” Moment: A Call for Action

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on July 31, 2014. 
“Each one of you is needed to reteach the world its own loveliness.” That was the charge to a group of 39 millennial leaders, ages 21 to 35, as we gathered at Union Theological Seminary in New York earlier this month.

Our week of discussing spirituality and social justice culminated in a conversation on the definition of a “kairos” moment. According to the website of the Kairos Institute, a center at Union for religion, rights, and social justice, kairos is “an ancient Greek word for a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action; the opportune and decisive moment; also a moment when the eternal breaks into history.”

I came home considering what West Michigan’s kairos moment is for interfaith relations. What are the conditions we live in, and how do they inform the direction of our community?

As I approach my one-year anniversary of working for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, a few lessons stick out to me.

  1. We have a desire to get to know our neighbors, especially those who are different from us. Through both formal and informal interfaith dialogues and conversations, I’ve encountered such a sincere curiosity and interest in being a part of a community that consists not just of like-minded individuals, but also those who can teach one another about new ways of viewing life, religion and spirituality.
  2. While we have made significant strides, intolerance still persists. Although we have seen much of the respect and interest I just mentioned, we have also seen there remain issues that divide our communities from one another. Whether it is the current conflicts in the Middle East, or the distrust that lies between religious and non-religious groups, we have yet to achieve a deeper recognition of our shared humanity.
  3. We must recognize the “intersectionality” of interfaith issues. At its core, the interfaith movement is working toward a world where our religious or non-religious identities are all respected. In other words, it is working against religious discrimination and oppression. However, this does not occur in a vacuum, it stands alongside all other forms of oppression. In order to meaningfully combat religious discrimination and oppression, we must do so in a way that recognizes we cannot stand up for some rights while ignoring others.

I view my responsibility in this kairos moment as a call, in the words of Union Seminary theologian Dr. John Thatamanil, to “remind people of the loveliness of the world so that they will attend to the repair of the world.” This kairos moment cannot be tackled by any individual or organization alone. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Whether in spirit or in action, I look forward to the West Michigan community joining us in this exciting and defining moment. Stay tuned to this newsletter, our website, our Facebook page, and always feel free to email us to be a part of where this kairos moment is taking us.