Last week my friend Katie Gordon visited Boston so of course we had to get dinner and catch up. I showed Katie around campus, took her to the LGBTQ Resource Center to see our mutual friend and colleague Lee, and after a quick tour of our Sacred Space, we wandered over to Newbury Street. We stopped in Trident Books and mused over some titles, mainly discussing what had been happening on our respective campuses. We nerded out about a few particular books, mostly related to feminism and/or religion. Finally, we sat down to a delicious South Asian dinner.
Katie is the Program Manager for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Grand Valley, Michigan. She identifies as secular, but make no mistake- Katie is one of the most influential interfaith leaders of our time. She trains for the Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institutes and has introduced Krista Tippett, creator and host of the radio program On Being, because she’s that cool. I have known Katie for a while through our mutual Interfaith Youth Core affiliations. One thing I really appreciate about Katie is her ability to unapologetically be who she is without inhibiting anyone else from doing the same. She is open about her whiteness and privilege, but not guilty or frozen in working to make change.
At some point in our conversation, we both expressed concern for the interfaith movement as it exists now. What does it mean to train leaders when many people of faith live under real threat for their lives- because of their faith? Can white, secular young people train in the same spaces as black Muslim women? As queer Jews? As Hindu immigrants? As refugees who, despite looking death in the face, have held close to their devotions? How do we expect those who seem to lose power and voice every day to lead others when there is real, imminent danger?
I have been reflecting on this question for some time now. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about activist and filmmaker (among other amazing things) Valarie Kaur’s message and definition of Revolutionary Love is that I feel so strongly about Valarie herself. She represents to me the very type of leader that begins to answer this difficult question of how we as developing interfaith leaders might live into our identity as such. You see, Valarie may have several thousand Facebook friends, a database of over 100,000 subscribers via different projects she has started, and one of her recent speeches has now acquired over 16 million views on social media (that’s remarkable, just FYI), but Valarie never does her work alone. She always thinks, speaks, and acts in community because she recognizes that while her voice is essential- as a woman of color, a Sikh American, an accomplished pioneer in filmmaking and civil rights law- hers is by no means the only voice with one particular set of concerns. We need not look further than the daily news to see how many communities need more voice for dire concerns.
In this way, I think our answer begins not at the “I” that defined the previous era of interfaith leadership, the years I spent building my toolbox and story collection. Interfaith work has always been about bringing communities together, but allowing particular individuals to serve as the face of communities, to represent traditions and belief systems even if inadvertently has in the past been enough- we look around our table to see a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and seeker, and we feel good about our group. We can dialogue and serve together. We might not talk at all about the intersections of our own identities, or how unequal access to this table might be.
We have reached a moment in our public landscape in which the “I” interfaith leaders will quickly feel devastatingly alone or completely exhausted, and probably both. The interfaith movement is at a true “we” moment- a time when it needs to be acceptable and encouraged for us to ask each other to do things like march on the front lines, speak publicly against bigotry, or give money to civil rights organizations. Going to prison for disorderly conduct. The reality is, we cannot all risk the same things. We need to know our limits. Focusing on “I” can help us learn these things about ourselves, but will not build networks. Right now, the fact that our different identities afford us unique privileges is an advantage if we use them in community.
As Valarie so beautifully stated recently, “We can practice Revolutionary Love for those who are in prison because they have committed great harm. This does not mean they shouldn’t be in prison. This means we free our hearts to believe they can be greater.” For some of us, practicing Revolutionary Love, just like interfaith leadership, means asking our allies to put their words and bodies on the line. At the same time, for some of us, it means being asked and saying yes.