After spending some months assisting the Cordoba Initiative with communications during the “Park51” controversy, I was left feeling deeply frustrated with the lack of interreligious understanding online and the tendency for discourse to become nasty and disrespectful.
At the same time, I witnessed firsthand how social media and blogging can serve be powerful tools to connect and educate, circumventing barriers of prejudice and misinformation.
My overall conclusion was hopeful: that online communication truly can change the tone of public discourse, under certain conditions. It must be managed in the correct way, curbing hurtful speech while avoiding censorship. Easier said than done!
Through my activities with Cordoba, I happened to begin a correspondence with Chris Stedman. Though I was just beginning work with my current organization, a small non-profit that assists severely underprivileged children in South Asia, I wanted to continue my involvement with interfaith work online. Naturally, I was thrilled when Chris invited me to join State of Formation in a leadership capacity and assist with getting the blog off the ground.
As the blog launched and the weeks went by, I engaged in many rewarding exchanges with fellow staff and contributors, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experimental and evolving nature of the project. We all had a sense we were participating in something novel and important, and the energy we drew from this was particularly stimulating in the initial phase.
The truly pivotal breakthrough, however, came when our core team met for a weekend retreat at Andover-Newton in January. The flood of creativity and enthusiasm, not to mention empathy and sharing, that was unleashed in those two days really convinced me that our infant project was already a success. Seeing something that began with geographically isolated people communicating over the web suddenly catalyze so many powerful, face-to-face group conversations convinced me I was witnessing the future of interfaith communication.
I am immensely proud of how State of Formation has evolved and matured, and feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to contribute in this project. I wish all staff and writers the best of luck in carrying forward, and hope that you remain conscious of the uniqueness and importance of your endeavor. You are all serving as role models for how contemporary public discourse on critical issues should be handled, and you continue to impress and inspire with your intelligence and creativity.
Best, Ian Burzynski
Image by WarmSleepy, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Stephanie Varnon-Hughes is a Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, where she earned her Master's in Church History in 2008 and her STM in 2009. A schoolteacher, Stephanie received the Most Promising New Teacher of the Year Award of 2005 in St. Louis, Missouri and has taught English and Performing Arts in public schools in St. Louis and the Bronx. She is a PhD student at Claremont Lincoln University, focusing on building and piloting a multi-religious curriculum for public secondary school students. Follow her on Twitter @SVarnonHughes.