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.

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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.

Common Ground Podcast

This past week, I talked with my friend Joe Hogan on the podcast he hosts called Common Ground, a production of the Hauenstein Center at GVSU.

The conversation spanned as many topics – both in breadth and depth – as Joe & I’s conversations usually do, and I think it stands as an interesting marker for interfaith engagement in this particular historical/political moment. Below are some of the themes we explored, and you can listen to the interview here.

  • What is the point of interfaith?
  • How do we create conditions for authentic dialogue?
  • The unique context of faith & interfaith in West Michigan
  • The role of interfaith in American politics today
  • Focusing not only on building common ground, but recognizing our inevitable common life
  • Interfaith Youth Core and Eboo Patel’s national leadership in the interfaith movement
  • Intersectionality of identity and how it has enriched interfaith spaces
  • The trend of the Rise of the ‘Nones’ and the role of non-religious people in interfaith
  • My Catholic upbringing, why I do interfaith, and my admiration for Carl Sagan & Dorothy Day
  • Living our faith our in public – “public theology reimagined”
  • The way we talk about and represent narratives around religion in media and news

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.