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 grew up between soybean fields and corn stalks, two pet cows to my name and a gaggle of barn cats. I learned to write my name as a child for the sole purpose of getting a library card, and when my mother insisted I go with her to church, I asked if I could read my books about girl scouts and babysitters, so long as I was quiet. She said I could read, but the books had to be religious. I got my hands on a comic book version of the Bible and called it a fair compromise.
It wasn’t until a year into my graduate program in religious studies—a path I never envisioned I’d take—that I realized, for all the times we sat together in church, I didn’t really know what my mother believed.
Because where I’m from, religion was rarely spoken of. Admittedly, the town was small, the diversity limited, but there were a handful of families that broke the general “some kind of Christian” mold. Whether they didn’t celebrate birthdays, got special permission to miss holidays in autumn, held mass in their homes from a Bible I’d never heard of or prayed to Odin, or Harmed None; whether they knew how to cross themselves “correctly” or proudly prayed for (and received) the best parking spaces at Target on weekends, these were small idiosyncrasies. Local color. Strange, perhaps, and that sometimes bred judgement, but it was largely the unspoken sort, said with eyes and not with words—not until doors were closed between, at least.
I grew up in the middle of nowhere, outside a city that used to be somewhere: dead center of the Rust Belt, and even there, we had some truly gorgeous, genuinely unique diversity.
And yet we never talked about it. We never learned from it, or grew with it. We never allowed it to create something novel, to make something in us bigger, fuller: more alive.
Because that’s what engaging diversity is made for, I think: to broaden our horizons, to stretch our empathy, to expand our curiosity and our capacity for love. And alongside all our best efforts—all the classrooms we sit in, reading about religious diversity, all the interfaith encounters we orchestrate in our college-town communities, all the experiential learning we do on the ground, in the field—there are still far too many conversations left unstarted, too many opportunities for growth and understanding untapped: too many instances for building connection and compassion that are overlooked, sometimes to prejudiced, destructive ends.
There are too many places in the middle of everywhere, where no one talks.
So I am committed to this venture—this need for relationships among individuals of diverse philosophies and religious beliefs—because whether it’s between soybean fields and corn stalks, skyscrapers and porch gardens, or rivers and oceans and mountains and trees: we are more human when we value one another; when we take the time to love better, and feel more.
When we take the time to talk.