Before my 14-hour debacle getting to Chicago due to “mechanical issues”, I felt pretty confident about what to write this week. After all, I was delivering a short speech at the Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institute, and I could very easily transcribe my speech here. Of course, as an educator I consistently learn much more from passionate students than I could ever teach anyone by talking.
When I finally arrived at my hotel around 10:30 pm, 12 hours after my planned arrival to the city I called home for over three years, I felt exhausted. I barely arrived in time for my roommate and new friend Janice D’Souza to let me in our room before falling asleep. In the brief minutes I got to know her before my head hit the pillow and jolted me into dreamland, Janice shared her story with me. She had participated in Better Together, a national Interfaith Campaign, at Berea College when she was a college student. This is how she became an IFYC alum. She had spent the past 14 months traveling around India working with women around issues of education. “I thought I was going to talk about menstruation, disease, and health issues”, she said. “I didn’t consider religion at all. When I found out that the reason so few girls were participating in our programs was that upper caste Hindu families didn’t want their daughters mingling with lower caste families, I realized I had to talk about religion, it wasn’t optional.”
Gazing around the room at the excited and somewhat sleep deprived faces Sunday morning, I felt nostalgic. There is no feeling like meeting 199 other students from around the country who actually care about something you do. I started my speech with a story that revealed my road to interfaith work. I entered college as a business major. In my second year, I added East Asian Languages and Cultures (I had passed out of all but one required language class, so it seemed reasonable). I tacked on International Relations because hey, it was only five classes more, and I thought it would give me access to traveling opportunities. By the time I was almost a junior, I took my first religious studies class- and knew I wasn’t giving this up. Studying religion seemed impractical, and quite unique from my other fields of study- but it was what I loved, pure and simple. “I can do this, all of this,” I thought.
That same summer an esteemed professor in the Marshall School of Business came to the office I worked in as a student one day. He knew my last name because my mom still does his family’s taxes. He launched into a conversation with me about what I was studying, which quickly became an advice seminar.
“You can’t continue with all four of these,” he said. “It’s not practical. You look unfocused, uncommitted, like you don’t know what your passion is.”
“But I have so many passions,” I wanted to say. I looked down at my shoes. Should I continue in the field that would most certainly come with several job offers before I even walked at graduation, or should I choose the destiny that got me out of bed actually excited to go to class every morning?
Business, Japanese literature, and foreign policy did interest me and I enjoyed classes in those majors, but religion was different. In one course, I was transported back in time to the days Jesus lived on earth. I journeyed with him as a person before he was called Messiah. In another class, we spent our time smelling sacred perfumes and elixirs meticulously brewed for sacred rituals. We visited a Hindu temple that put all my senses on overload. And yet, all the rich knowledge I kept acquiring needed to be put to use. What could one do, besides become a professor, with a newfound expertise in classical Taoist apocalyptic texts?
Listening to my colleagues on stage Sunday reminded me why the USC Interfaith Council became my home on campus. This was a community that made religion and spirituality relevant no matter what we were studying. We sought to root our practices, our guiding questions, our assertions about ultimate concern in everything we did- because they sustain us in everything we do, every passion we pursue.
Today, the interfaith movement speaks so much to me because it is not only about religion. The interfaith youth movement, in fact, is about everything beyond religion. Janice was spot on- talking about religion, in this time of deep pain and polarization, is not optional. When I hear students struggling to turn their many interests into a career, I remind them that in our lifetimes, we are expected to have no less than 12. Religious Literacy is a commitment to embracing difference, both among our friends, colleagues, and teammates, and within ourselves. When we do this, we open our personal narrative to multiple possibilities and new perspectives that the world urgently needs.