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.


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.

Short reflection after a long week.

One week into the so-called “Muslim Ban” – and what it’s been like to be an interfaith organizer.
Last weekend, I was a trainer at the Interfaith Youth Core ILI in Atlanta, a weekend starting with the “Muslim Ban” and ending with a shooting at a Mosque which killed 6 people. It was a powerful time to be gathered with about 250 students, staff, faculty, and interfaith organizers, and while our work took a more somber tone, I left hopeful about the direction of our movement going forward. I also left re-energized thanks to my friends on staff at IFYC, who are always delights to enjoy time with these chances we get every few months.
Then as soon as I got back to Grand Rapids, we sprung into action to host conversations here about these recent political actions – most notably, we hosted a Solidarity Dinner at GVSU with about 200 people who showed up to have dialogue and write cards of support to our local mosques and refugee community. It was a beautiful testament to how in times of struggle, we need to listen and support one another.
Both experiences have had me reflecting a lot on the future of interfaith. In a time when religion is increasingly politicized, what does our work look like? For me, I hope that interfaith continues to grow into a space where all communities gather to imagine what our common life looks like… empowered by our varied backgrounds as well as our shared values, we stand in solidarity with the marginalized, we build coalitions across disciplines, and we co-create a more just society.
I think both locally and nationally, we’re on the right track. Politics may be holding us back, but I have confidence that people – organizing through community – will keep us moving forward in this work.

Overcoming Othering and Promoting Belonging in this Political Moment

This piece also appeared in the Kaufman Institute Interfaith Insight on Tuesday, Nov. 15 and the Grand Rapids Press, Muskegon Chronicle, Kalamazoo Gazette, and Jackson Citizen-Patriot on Nov. 17.

In an article by john a. powell and Stephen Menendian, “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging,” they propose, “As we transition through political and economic realignments, we also go through a remaking of ourselves.” This shifting in identity – both individual and group – has the danger of further distinguishing and dividing us based on our differences. Whether it is political and ideological values, or ethnic and religious identities, these differences can either lead to a deeper division or a more united diversity.

The desire for separating ourselves from one another makes sense. Human beings have a natural tendency to distinguish groups from one another using categories that include some and separate out others.

But, as powell and Menendian point out, these categorical boundaries do not remain only in our minds and in-groups, but manifest in our actions and thus the world. Categories affect our behavior, inform our decisions, and lead to stereotypes, discrimination and group-based inequalities.

So when it is human nature to construct opposing and othering identities and groups, how can we resist the tendency? During this transformative political time as we are remaking ourselves and defining who is a part of “We the People,” how can we offer inclusive alternatives that honor one another and create a culture of belonging?

While some responses to diversity are segregation, secession and assimilation, powell and Menendian propose that the alternative to these ultimately unproductive strategies is promoting a sense of belonging through expanding the circle of human concern. This goes beyond “tolerating and respecting difference but to ensuring that all people are welcome and feel that they belong in society,” write powell and Menendian, directors of the Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

One of my interfaith heroes who expanded the circle of human concern is Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which brought together communities through houses of hospitality. In creating a movement meant to be a revolutionary force to change the social order, Day’s aim was to “try to make that kind of a society in which it is easier for people to be good.”

I would go further to suggest that new, inclusive categories and structures should not only make it easier to be good to one another, but also to see one another’s pain, to feel empathy for one another, and to engage in action on behalf of one another.

As powell and Menendian conclude, “the most important good we distribute to each other in society is membership.” With inclusive categories and structures also come inclusive narratives that support us all. By reframing our individual and group identities in a way that unites rather than divides, we also reject the narratives that pit us against others.

These narratives that divide and create othering have dominated our society for most of history. We must work diligently and collectively to uncover and promote the narratives that seek to unite and create belonging.

Policies and rhetoric have the potential to deny personhood and humanity or to grant full membership and participation in society.

The most important thing for us moving forward – all of us, regardless of political affiliation or religious beliefs – is to ensure that all people are able to fully participate and feel a sense of belonging in our country that is meant for all.

During this presidential campaign season and election, we saw that this expanded circle of human concern and belonging does not exist in our society, at least not yet. In remaking ourselves and our communities in the wake of this political moment, let us take into consideration the poetic words of Edwin Markham:

“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 and took him in!”

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.