There are so many great interfaith organizations across the United States. One of the challenges I remember starting the interfaith dialogue on my campus was finding support from a much larger national organization that would support my efforts. The small town and small campus that I had come to call my home had little to offer me in the way of obvious religious diversity. There were several Christian organizations, but I had never heard of any other religious or secular organizations on my campus. During my undergraduate years I visited a couple of the Christian ministries on campus, but none really felt like my space. When I returned for graduate school four years later I was determined that I would create a place for those who sought interactions with people from a variety of religious identities.
I must say that I did not find any particular Christian organization off putting or offensive. I just felt like there was a missing element of depth. I wanted to be free to ask the most difficult questions about Christianity without judgmental glances. I was missing conversations about the common undercurrents of all religious traditions. Those types of conversation did not seem like a likely possibility at ‘free pizza Tuesdays’.
If I was not going to be able to find these types of exchanges already happening on my campus, I felt responsible to begin the dialogue. The first step was the student organization office. Beginning an official organization was not a simple proposition. One was required to find a faculty or staff sponsor, write a constitution, and, finally, find at least half a dozen other students that were interested in the organization and willing to add themselves to the official roster. This final task was the one I did not know if I would succeed in accomplishing. Were there others on our small Bible-Belt town that would be open to inter-religious dialogue and cooperation?
The campus wide student organization recruitment fair was held on September 11. I spent hours preparing my table display. I taped religious quiz question to pieces of candy, printed out flyers, checked out all the religious texts from the library to be a table display, and none of those things prepared me for the responses that were to come. My elevator speech, the thirty seconds I had to get students to buy into my idea seemed to cause, more often than not, a glaze of apprehension. They just were not ready to hear what I was saying, essentially ‘let’s get to know one another, and see if there is anything we can learn from those that are different than us.’
I stood outside in the commons in the west Texas windy afternoon heat; student after student would approach some with a bit more trepidation, some with more curiosity, and some passed shaking their heads in disapproval. I had resolved that no matter the response I would reinforce the idea that absolutely everyone was welcome. Whether one believed in a God, gods, or no god whatsoever, they were welcome at the Student Interfaith Dialogue. The name was not all that original, I know, but I thought the content was going to be challenging enough. It did not need to be complicated by a name in need of interpretation.
The response, well, it took me by surprise…