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.

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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.

How college campuses are proving we’re “better together”

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on April 10, 2014. 
For the past few weeks, we have been celebrating the leaders who helped start this incredible interfaith community in West Michigan. Today, I’d like to explore how the next generation of interfaith leaders is being mobilized across the country – and what the interfaith movement looks like on college campuses.

This interfaith youth movement is culminating this week, on Thursday, April 10, with thousands of university students and staff celebrating interfaith cooperation by pledging to be “Better Together” in their communities.

When I attended Alma College, I went to conferences hosted by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization founded by Eboo Patel, and was taught and inspired by their mission. IFYC says we can all use our faith traditions, as well as our non-faith traditions, to inspire us to unite under common values to promote a greater good.

What really sold me on this model of interfaith work was the unique approach IFYC takes in bringing people together over differences that easily could divide us. It’s a simple philosophy:  “Voice. Engage. Act.” Here’s what it means:

  • Voice your values: Use where you come from to inspire you to action and share that inspiration with others.
  • Engage with others: Share your distinct traditions and religious or philosophical beliefs in order to motivate you under common values.
  • Finally, act together: Use your values alongside others in order to make a difference in something important.

This model can be applied to any issue of social justice or peace; it simply suggests that if we are going to try to accomplish something, we might as well do it together. Not only because we are better together, but when we unite in a community, we are stronger together. If we are able to embrace each tradition’s values, the impact will reach farther, dig deeper, and ultimately make a bigger splash in these seemingly challenging issues.

This Thursday, on Better Together Day, one specific problem is being tackled by this growing youth movement – religious intolerance. Today, campuses across the country are using this model to stand up against discrimination in order to advocate for interfaith cooperation. Some are wearing blue in solidarity with the movement, others are engaging in community service projects, while a Grand Valley State University class is hosting a Diversity & Dialogue roundtable discussion. Whatever the means, people are using their voices and presences to be louder than those who counter interfaith progress.

Better Together Day is about recognizing that religion should be used as force for good and a tool for peace. Further, it is about how all faith and non-faith communities can come together to promote that value. These emerging interfaith leaders recognize this potential, and will continue to promote it on their campuses and in their communities.

To become a part of this — even if you are not associated with a university or campus — visit IFYC.org/BeBlue, sign the pledge and add your voice to the movement.