Back to School? Join the Interfaith Council…

Many of us are starting school soon, and you know what that means…moving, course shopping, and of course, involvement fairs. This is a great time of year to join a club, a sport, or just find a new community. It’s great to make new friends and build your network no matter how you get involved. Along with these benefits, you can gain some great practical and professional skills. When I was a student at USC, my two main communities were the Latino Business Student Association and the Interfaith Council. After graduating and moving on the graduate school and now a full time university position, I realized how many concrete skills joining an interfaith council can give you for college and beyond…whether or not you are religious. “Interfaith” might sound completely irrelevant to you (and no activity is for absolutely everyone), but if you are at all interested in learning about different cultures or wrestling with life’s “tough” questions, you may want to reconsider walking the other way so quickly. What is an “interfaith council”? Nowadays, every campus interfaith group reflects the diversity of its own culture and structure, but in general, an interfaith or multifaith council is a group of campus community members from different “faiths” (which can include those of no faith: nones, atheists, agnostics, unaffiliated, skeptics) who gather to dialogue about a particular topic, sometimes related to religion and spirituality, and sometimes not so much. Dialogue may be the only purpose for some groups, and for others, community service, visiting sacred spaces, and advising the campus ministry or chaplaincy office on campus may be functions of the council as well. As interfaith councils and action groups have become more common on college campuses, they have also become leadership programs. If you are considering joining your campus’ interfaith or multifaith group, here are 6 concrete skills and benefits you can take from joining an interfaith council or dialogue group:

1.Religious and Cultural Literacy

Many campus interfaith groups meet somewhere between once a week and once a month to dialogue with each other, and often, they choose topics surrounding religion and spirituality. One of the most interesting topics for my peers when I was on USC’s interfaith council was “interfaith dating”. Each of us would share how we felt about dating (whether that was even appropriate) someone from a tradition that was not our own. Conversations like these helped us learn more about each other, and more about other faith traditions. This knowledge of different religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions is vital in our world, and broadening your own in this setting and not simply by reading from texts will help you in whatever field you choose to pursue. You will be a strong ally for colleagues and may even be called upon to make important decisions given your knowledge of different traditions.

2. Dialogue Facilitation and Conversation Moderating

An interfaith conversation is not one in which the same response from every participant is helpful or possible. In fact, the reason for an interfaith council is to celebrate the richness of difference in the room, and to explore both shared values and distinctions that help us learn more about each other. I remember hearing my Muslim conversation partners cite verses from the Qur’an, the central sacred text in Islam, and thinking, “wow, how beautiful that is!” because I had never heard anything like it. At the same time, we all recognized pretty quickly how important food and sharing was for most all of our traditions. Learning how to both participate in and moderate a conversation in which people may disagree but can do so respectfully will help you not only in your future career, but in the classroom as well. Have you ever felt intimidated to speak in class because you’re sure someone will tear your argument apart? A good interfaith conversation will teach you how to listen respectfully and respond in a way that builds off the previous person’s comment, whether you agree or not. This shows both skill and preparedness in the classroom.

3. Build Your Network on a Global Scale

Within three weeks of joining the interfaith council as an undergraduate, my network (and entire world) had broadened exponentially. Many interfaith council members are connected to other communities, religious and otherwise. One of the best parts of an interfaith council is that members come from different fields of study and departments on campus. When we planned the inaugural Student Multifaith Leadership Conference, we asked our film student member to help us build our conference website, our business students to spearhead fundraising for the event, and everyone participated in reaching out to people in their own field to attend. Learning to dialogue and work with people from different fields and areas of expertise will not only expand your network, you will learn how to collaborate and call on colleagues with different skill sets. No matter which industry you choose to pursue after graduation, this skill will help you be entrepreneurial and complete creative projects. As entrepreneurs, we say “your network is your net worth”, and this statement is not a lie.

4. Meet Students (and others) You Never Would Otherwise

This follows directly from the last skill, but again, learning to dialogue and work together with people whom you wouldn’t meet otherwise will not only increase your knowledge of different cultures and traditions, but will give you a breadth of knowledge of many industries and fields. Religion and spirituality does not exist in a vacuum, and many times our interfaith council ended up dialoguing about an important issue on campus or something exciting in a member’s field- like the intersection of spirituality and medicine, or how we might look for solutions to global climate change. It is invaluable to have an expertise in conversation-making, especially with people you don’t see everyday (or ever).

5. Self-Awareness and Individuality

One of the greatest skills we can develop that often gets overlooked or minimized is a deep understanding of ourselves, the different pieces of our identity, and the fact that all of us are individuals. As someone who was still exploring my faith in college, the questions with which my peers on the interfaith council wrestled as we dialogued together forced me to self-reflect on my answers- what did I think about an afterlife? What did my tradition say about service to others? Why was I in this room, talking to these people? Developing this self-awareness not only helped me in my faith journey, but helped me understand my studies, my work, and every activity I pursued as part of my complex identity. I realized that my primary interest in religion and spirituality was an interest in helping people, in connecting the college experience to a deeper meaning. Further, interfaith dialogue helped me understand something crucial- every person is an individual, and while they may subscribe to a religion, a spiritual practice, or any set of beliefs, they do not represent the entirety of that belief system, nor does the system represent all of who they are. Knowing this will help you connect more deeply with every person you meet, by seeing everyone as a complex individual, not assuming anything about them.

6. Welcoming and Inclusive Actions

In my experience, interfaith councils certainly seek to welcome members of diverse faith and non-faith traditions, but they also should welcome members who hold many different identities. Through my peers, I constantly learned and still discover new ways to be inclusive, whether it means being mindful of my language or making sure dietary customs are considered if we provide a meal. This might seem grueling and prohibitive for an honest conversation, but in fact, creating an inclusive space where everyone can share and learn from each other without feeling marginalized or fearful of being wrong promotes the richest conversation. If everyone participating in the dialogue agrees that the environment is not a politically-correct contest, but a true space to learn from and educate each other, you can learn how to create this kind of space elsewhere, from the classroom to a team meeting. While this might be the toughest and most gradual skill to learn, it is undoubtedly one of the most important for the communities we seek to lead.
And perhaps most importantly to college students, in my experience, being part of an interfaith council meant tons of free meals (Burklo pizza was the best meal of the week for many of us at USC) and deep friendships that have lasted beyond even graduate school. Hopefully these skills were convincing to some! No interfaith council at your school? You could always start one…

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