See Part I here.
Oscar* was a character. Every time I spoke with him, he listened intently to what I was saying. He wanted to not only to hear every single word, but also understand them. His curiosity was bottomless and that was contagious and endearing. When he first approached my table at the recruitment fair his curiosity was peaked. He listened to what I had to offer, and he was interested in a dialogue. He was also interested in introducing me to a friend of his.
Bryan was the president of the Secular Student Association (SSA). Apparently, my line “whether you believe in a God, gods, or no god at all, you are welcome at the Student Interfaith Dialogue” was Oscar’s indication that I needed to know Bryan. It was not long after I got to know the Bryan, Oscar, and the rest of the SSA students that I came to understand how much our campus was missing a dialogue on religious and philosophical identities. I quickly became jealous of the national organization backing their organization. The national SSA would send them stickers, and flyers, and all kinds of swag. I was trying to produce all that kind of material, conduct meetings, and be a graduate student.
I went in search of an organization that would help me. I did not have to go very far to find the Interfaith Youth Core. It is an organization that focuses on college campuses around the United States, fostering dialogue through a method they call the interfaith triangle. Now, I know I will not be able to quote the triangle quite like the staff of IFYC, but I will give it my best shot. As you learn more about a religion or philosophical identity your attitude towards people of that identity improves. Then as your attitudes change, you are more likely to meet and have relationships with people that hold that religious identity. As you are building that relationship, the knowledge you have of their religious identity increases, and so the triangle is completed.
We needed the interfaith triangle at our campus meetings. Three main groups of people joined the organization on our campus. Christians, who were, for the most part, open and interested to hear what was going on outside of their religious identity. Atheists, who were ecstatic to have another place on campus where they were welcome as fully themselves. The last group of people, added to that mix, made the meetings an interfaith exercise in every sense of the word. The last group of people I called the Christian questioners. A “Christian” somewhere in their past had said something or done some harm to them. The questioners wanted to know ‘was that person really a Christian? Was the harm done to them in Christian doctrine, belief, or tradition?’
My interfaith muscles had to be warmed up and ready to go for every meeting. You could guarantee the subject was going to get turned to the Christian response. By Christian response, I mean Christian history, how Christians treated people of a different faith, how Christians were responding to current events, how all Christians cared about was conversion. Before the end of the meeting “the Christian reaction” would have to be covered. Check out the latest IFYC podcast for a conversation about Evangelicals engaging in interfaith, it would have done me a lot of good in those early days.
I was so thankful for Beth Katz and Project Interfaith. The dialogue rules that I got from Project Interfaith enforced boundaries that everyone had agreed to at the start of the conversation. When a person stopped speaking from their personal perspective, one of the fundamentals, I had the authority to stop that line of conversation, and ask the individual sharing to rethink and reword the statement.
I did not get boxes of free swag from IFYC or Project Interfaith, but I did receive invaluable skills and communication tools. I would not trade what they taught me for any number of free stickers. I am infinitely grateful for their support. The Student Interfaith Dialogue continues on without me. They are planning a huge event for Interfaith Harmony Week. The two women that took over for me are incredibly dedicated to making interfaith the norm on our small town Texas campus.
*All names have been changed