Build While Burning

I’ve been missing something.

The students have had enough. They’re marching. They’re Tweeting. They’re on MSNBC. It took students fearing for their own lives to tear apart myths about freedom, protection, and rights to own weapons.

The students aren’t just tearing down, though. They’re building a movement. This is not something I have thought about enough in the thick of feeling angry and bitter and sometimes, really frozen. The conversations in articles and news reports and even face to face has focused so much on what is wrong and what needs to end, alternative processes and even visions feel overwhelming and inaccessible. Dismantling is necessary, but so is constructing. At least starting the process of creating something different in order to believe it can be done.

Building a movement is messy. People disagree and we learn every single day what needs to change. In December, I received a small grant to build a traveling museum exhibit that narrates stories of interfaith relationships and religious diversity in California. Building this exhibit is the biggest and yet perhaps the most important thing I have ever done. With my curating power, I have to choose objects that get to speak. I have to dictate what these objects should make us consider in learning about traditions or communities we may never have seen or heard. I feel so anxious that I will fail to balance or tell truth or even be blunt about oppression and violence through this history that had inevitably occured, and continues today. And yet, something calls me to keep working instead of giving up because I feel reverence to these stories.

I’m back at the National Association of College and University Chaplains conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C. this year. We came together to think about “voices on the margin” and our practices in caring for students who live on the margins for many reasons. We are wondering how sometimes we exist on the margins, and how we fail to welcome others when we have the power to change. I feel a different sense this year. Last year, 45 had been in office for less than a month. I sensed despair and anxiety. This year, despair is no excuse to hide. Our undocumented students are sitting in congress people’s offices demanding a Clean Dream Act. No one in the administration can support them the way chaplains can and should, if we keep building spaces for the mess.

I read something in a class a few weeks ago that put my real passion in perspective. Care is the common perogative of both chaplains and curators. Care for stories, care for identities, care for the complexity and messiness that is learning to be in the world, and how we see it as other might see it. This is the reason I continue to build, despite not recognizing that creation needs to be my theme this year. We don’t need to wait until the entire city burns to the ground before laying the foundations for new community resources.

Dangerous Interfaith

The beginning of the quarter means meeting new people- classmates, students, and professors. We know the drill- introduce ourselves and tell the class what we do. My classmates give such eloquent introductions. They have their elevator pitches polished. I usually say, “I do interfaith studies.” Frankly, it doesn’t sound lyrical or complicated. Often puzzled looks lead to questions. “What do you mean by interfaith?”

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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Right now I mean interfaith community building is nothing short of radical. Revolutionary. Extraordinary and necessary and dangerous. Creating relationships with people who disagree with our fundamental values sounds difficult and painful. It is, and it can be. But this mixing of unlikely subjects is disruptive. It calls the system and those in power to answer. You see, we have been socialized to stick to “our own kind.” This keeps those in power powerful, and those not in power disjointed. Of course, interfaith community building requires intentional time and real work for authenticity. Putting several “different” people in a room together is not community building.

Today we remembered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights leader. Except when Dr. King died, he wasn’t a celebrated figure at all. Many literally hated him. The government feared him. Dr. King was a troublemaker of the worst kind. He didn’t demand violence as the way to create change. He used sacred words. He used community. He used prayer. He exegeted and sermonized.

One of the reasons Dr. King earned his menacing reputation was the people with whom he spent his time. Non-Christians, protesters, ex-convicts, journalists. People that the system would gladly have oppose each other, compete with each other, hate each other. Working across these lines caused the real disruption.

This is what I mean by “interfaith.” It’s not warm and fuzzy, not a conversation about our favorite foods or holidays (though awareness is important and helpful for base building). Community building is about shifting our needs from the center of ourselves to the center of the circle. In interfaith work, this means inconveniencing ourselves to get others at the table because representation matters. Community building also demands that we speak our truths and acknowledge when we have harmed. It should be celebratory too- when something joyful happens, we can feel ownership over that joy. This is horrifying to a system that keeps power by managing groups separately. King spoke of a Beloved Community that invoked theological underpinnings. Interfaith communities hold not one sacred claim, but many.

I read several articles about the birth of empathy today. The authors scattered words like compassion, benevolence and pity throughout the text to help us readers understand what sympathy is. The concept of empathy hasn’t existed for very long, but it makes a powerful claim- one that when we take the time to embody someone else’s suffering-to physically and mentally comprehend- it is as if the suffering is our own. I believe empathy evokes a kind of spiritual practice that puts ourselves into the world without apology and fully vulnerable.

Interfaith community building doesn’t require empathy necessarily. We can create strong relationships without fully embodying another’s experience, and often we should refrain from assuming we could ever understand the oppression of another. Empathy does help us disrupt, though. It blurs the lines of responsibility and leadership. At a table full of conflicting convictions, empathy says “you are welcome because you are.”