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?
When I first entered college in Washington, DC, I was ecstatic about the many opportunities for interfaith encounters and activities. Coming from a comparatively homogenous city in Georgia, the idea of being a part of a community in which there would be non-Protestants beyond my own small circle of friends seemed ideal. I dove into it all right away: I interned at the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington; I was part of the on-campus Interfaith Council; I attended activities hosted by the Muslim Student Association, by Hillel, by Project Nur. And yet by the end of my first year, I found myself as jaded to the whole thing as a chipper freshman could be. Obviously, the conversations I had witnessed and been a part of were a great step in the right direction, and often created space for very meaningful interaction. But I felt increasingly that sometimes these activities were just soapboxes for those who liked to talk, or those who already wanted to interact with one another while condemning those who didn’t.
Then I spent the spring of 2011 in Aleppo, Syria, an experience which has ordered and motivated many of my choices since then. Aleppo, for me, was the city in which a Sunni dentist would sit me down with a tiny cup of Arabic coffee to discuss the differences and similarities between the Qur’an and the Bible. It was the city in which I was piled into a taxi by a mixture of Muslim and Christian friends to go attend a Greek Catholic liturgy because I’d expressed interest in seeing a service. It was the city in which my deeply conservative veiled friend helped me don hijab and enter a mosque, telling me that it was a house of God and right for anyone to pray in. The terrible thing now is doubting that city’s existence. Not only has its skyline been reduced largely to rubble, but the increasingly sectarian tenor of the conflict calls into question the sincerity of the beautiful diversity that once existed. Had it only been an illusion nailed into place by the Assad regime, or was it a true reflection of the hospitable and loving nature of Syrian society, now marred by the terrors of war?
I believe the answer is a mix of the two options. I cling to at least some degree of the latter, though, and that is why I remained committed to building relationships across religious differences. Though my younger self may have been in the right about the forced, incomplete nature of some structured interfaith activities, I have real faith in the socially salvific encounters which evolve, sometimes with and sometimes without outside help, between neighbors and classmates and colleagues. I cling to the truth of my memories of Aleppo, and indeed memories of kindness and healing interaction with more conservative friends back home in Georgia, as testaments that we as a species are not condemned forever to isolate ourselves and so to tear ourselves apart.