Managing Director’s Note: beginning in the Spring of 2013, all Contributing Scholars will answer the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?
I never thought much about religion until I was in high school, and even then, it was in the limited context of my Presbyterian church. It wasn’t until my sophomore year at Wesleyan that I began to consider religious differences, which happened by chance when I got an email asking for volunteers at the Interfaith Justice League’s Annual Fast-a-Thon and Ramadan Banquet. I didn’t know what interfaith meant, what Ramadan was, or how a fast-a-thon worked, but out of curiosity, I attended the meeting.
It was here that I met Nadeem, a Muslim student who decided the previous year to organize a fundraiser to raise money for a local food pantry, and foster awareness about Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims engage in a month of fasting. I thought the event was cool, but what really struck me was the religious diversity in the students planning the event; the three main organizers were Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. In some ways, religious differences didn’t matter. Nadeem, Rachel, and Ann-Marie came together for a common cause – to not only alleviate hunger, but also to educate students about Ramadan – and this inspired me. I wanted to be a part of this work because despite my own ambiguity in religious identity, I believed in two things that interfaith at Wesleyan embodied: people working together across religious differences, and service to the community. Getting involved in interfaith work at Wesleyan was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and the relationships I have built, which span multiple religious and ethical identities, prove that differences can be our best assets.
During my senior year, I attended an Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington D.C., organized by the Interfaith Youth Core. Hearing interfaith leaders from across the country talk about their dedication to this work was an incredibly enriching experience, and I was reminded of why interfaith is so important. In a world where people focus on religious conflict and the impossibility of bridging differences, here was a conference full of young people ready and eager to build relationships with people different from them. No matter what our religious or ethical background is, our shared humanity is more than enough to begin a dialogue.
I believe in building bridges because I know that we learn more about ourselves and the world around us from these interfaith relationships. In fact, I chose to attend Harvard Divinity School precisely because of its commitment to pluralism. However, these relationships are not easy. My atheist, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Buddhist friends certainly don’t see eye-to-eye with me on various theological, ethical, and political issues, yet I cherish our conversations because it opens my eyes to different ways of living in the world, and challenges me to think more critically about my Christian faith. Relationships across religious and ethical boundaries allow me to deepen my own understanding of our diverse world, wrestle with my faith, and meaningfully engage with others.