Facebook has been reminding me of memories recently (this must be a new feature- unless I’m only now realizing it. Or old enough to get memories?) and I have been feeling nostalgic. How much has changed in five years- and yet, how much really hasn’t.
This morning, Facebook informed me that five years ago today, the USC Interfaith Council hosted the first ever Student Multifaith Leadership Conference (SMLC) on campus. I remember planning that conference with the other IFC members. We spent many nights crammed in one of our apartments, working tirelessly to get spread the word and get our logistics in place. It was my last semester at USC, and I recall a distinct feeling of being busy beyond imagination- writing two theses, taking twenty units, still fulfilling my role as IFC president, and finding time to make the most of LA with my friends- and yet experiencing pure joy despite the stress. The IFC really bonded as a team.
Reflecting on myself five years ago, I can’t help but feel proud of the students I served at Northeastern, and the amazing interfaith leaders I have met around the country since the SMLC. The world is in a different place, sort of- on the whole, these students are much more aware of the role interfaith communities must play in dismantling systems of oppression and including various identities at the table. I see a great success and opportunity in partnership- beyond dialoguing and learning, the young people are showing up for each other to seek racial justice, gender equity, rights for immigrants and the undocumented.
My Senior Ministry Project at UChicago focused on interfaith dialogue as a model for building identity awareness. I think it’s no secret that when we seek to hear convictions that conflict or sometimes even threaten our own, we learn more about ourselves. We are forced to contemplate our own beliefs. One afternoon on the fourth floor of Swift Hall (the home of the Divinity School), I presented my thesis to the Dean of the Divinity School. He asked me to dig deeper on a couple points, and finally, he said, “Tell me honestly- how many students do you really think would participate in this kind of thing? It seems like such a specialized program.” “All of them should,” I responded. He laughed. “You really believe that?”
The idealist in me says yes, I do believe that. I think everyone should participate in interfaith dialogue- even the vehement atheists. Education is about confronting ideas that bring us discomfort. Interfaith dialogue at it’s height is deeply uncomfortable. I have learned over several years of doing this work that humans are pretty particular when it comes to our worldviews. And yet, voicing our particularities is exactly what makes the work together so meaningful.
I remember the day of the SMLC donning my purple and turquoise shirt proudly. There was a typo on it, but that made it our own. At the closing panel, I sat next to my friend Antonia, a pagan writer and anthropologist, feeling a little sad that the experience was over. We had all put such heart into the work. And we never should have met, that group of people. We studied different fields, traveled to different places, called several nations home. The intentionality of the group is what gave me so much life, so much joy. As I continue to reflect on my journey at Northeastern, I believe the days I felt the most joy were the days I saw that intentionality in my students.
When there is no reason for us to meet, we are faced with our own truths. We can’t fall back on assumptions that we are friends because we find the same things interesting. Discomfort brings learning. It also helps us build deeper relationships because it helps us dismantle the systemic urge to stay safe in our bubbles. If every person we encounter is meant to teach us, we learn most from those who are most distinct from us. We never should have met. And yet, here we are, finding joy in the world together.