Purple and turquoise signs. Students wearing college t-shirts. Pictures of interfaith leaders like MLK and Gandhi, Valarie Kaur and Dorothy Day. Yep, I was definitely at the Interfaith Youth Core’s 2015 Chicago Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI).
Even though I never attended an ILI as a student, I’ve attended a handful. I got to speak on an alumni panel, attend an alumni gathering, and this past weekend, I was excited to transition to attending as a “campus ally” in my new role at Northeastern University. This was a particularly exciting ILI because 300 students traveled from around the country to participate, the largest ILI ever.
After meeting with a few of IFYC’s supporters, staff members and fellow alumni, we headed down to dinner where the founder of IFYC, Dr. Eboo Patel, announced the recipient of this year’s Mike Hammer Interfaith Leader award, Samantha Nichols. Samantha is an interfaith leader at Missouri State University.
No matter how many times I attend an ILI, I will never find them redundant or dull, even if I’ve done Talk Better Together (an ice breaker activity) a hundred times. At dinner I sat next to my friend and fellow alumnae Karyn Wouden, who brings interfaith leadership into her vocation, teaching and performing harp. She works in a pretty unique field for IFYC alumni, though a very important one as an artist and a teacher. After we listened to Samantha’s eloquent acceptance speech, Karyn and I expressed a mutual feeling, one of intense admiration for all the great work that IFYC alumni do, and a constant feeling of “not doing enough”, like starting a non-profit.
I considered these feelings for a while as I lay in bed that night, unable to sleep from the adrenaline I always try to suppress after an event hosted by IFYC. Both feelings- admiration, and ambition- are good, in some ways. With all the frustrating, maddening, terrifying news we hear every day, admiration for young people working together despite sometimes fundamental differences is exactly what we need. And further, lifting up the stories of cooperation and compassion around us is one of our most important jobs as interfaith leaders. Ambition is also good, it keeps us motivated right? Yes, but sometimes, it also hinders our compassion for ourselves. When we see great work all around us, it’s natural to feel like we don’t measure up, like we aren’t doing enough.
I won’t say that we cannot or should not ever feel this way, it really is natural. But what I would like to work on, as someone concerned with compassion toward others beginning with myself, is something Samantha noted in her acceptance speech. Samantha noted that “she never intended to climb a mountain”, but that at some point, she realized she was already part of the way up. There is always more to climb, but many times, we forget that we have climbed any of the mountain at all.
The reason ILIs will never get old for me, and I could guess the other IFYC alumni I see over and over, is that seeing students light up when they meet each other, learn something new about a different tradition, or hear about the multitude of ways they might take this leadership training into their unique career path is because we return to our own narrative of becoming interfaith leaders. I see students laughing and joking with each other, and I remember when the Faiths Act Fellows belted N’SYNC songs on our tiny bus as we drove through Malawi. I see students gather every ounce of courage they have to ask Dr. Patel a question in front of everyone else, and I remember when it took all my courage just to shake his hand. I see Samantha so gracefully accept her well-deserved award, named after my Fellows Alliance supervisor, and I remember beaming with pride as I accepted my university’s award for the most contribution to religious life on campus.
Climbing a mountain is an ambitious and arduous task indeed, and so is growing as an interfaith leader. Maybe some of our friends climb faster. We are all climbing the same mountain. We all have our own strategies. And we have all ascended part of the mountain, which is a positive story to tell for those who may be just beginning. As I seek to tell the successful stories of my peers, I seek to self-reflect on my own success, and return to my own narrative of becoming an interfaith leader. This helps me cultivate compassion within, which undoubtedly helps cultivate compassion toward others.