Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
My first interfaith friendship developed when I was an eight-year-old third grader living in a small-town in Eastern North Carolina. I was African-American and Baptist. He was Indian and Hindu. Both intellectually curious and inquisitive to no end, we became fast friends. We played together, rode bikes together, studied together and spent countless weekends shuttling back and forth across town to each other’s homes. We were virtually inseparable. While our childhood friendship was chock-full of adventure and exploration, two specific encounters stand out as markers of the transformational nature of our interfaith friendship.
The first encounter took place on our elementary school playground. As an eight year old who took Sunday School lessons very seriously, I decided that it was my Christian duty to introduce my Hindu friend to Jesus. So, off to the playground I went, pocket-sized Bible in hand, to carry out my first evangelical mission. The details of that conversation are a distant memory; however, I distinctly remember that following our vigorous third grade playground debate, my friend and I agreed to respect each other’s beliefs and affirmed that our religious and cultural differences would not stand in the way of our friendship.
The second transformational encounter occurred at my friend’s home. After a long day of bike-riding and playing, his mother offered to order us pizza. Attempting to reach consensus on the type of pizza to order, I advocated vigorously for sausage and pepperoni while he was adamant that the pizza must be meatless. Thinking that I had found the perfect compromise, I suggested that we order a pizza with one half meat and the other half vegetables. My friend went on to explain that not eating meat was more than just a dietary choice for he and his family—it was a matter of religious devotion. Bringing meat into his home, even if I were the only one eating it, would be disrespectful to his family and his faith. In that moment, I learned that interfaith relationships require more than an abstract acceptance of religious diversity. True friendship requires respect for the overarching impact of one’s religious convictions on their life and a deep commitment to honoring the significance of their religious practices.
Interfaith engagement, for many, is nothing more than the abstract study of world religions with overviews of major themes, texts, figures and beliefs. While such exposure is educationally fundamental, it is no substitute for personal transformation that can only occur through sustained first-person encounters with diverse people in a wide variety of social contexts. I am committed to building interfaith relationships because I believe that positive social change is the result of many individual experiences of awakening and transformation. The only sustainable cure for the xenophobic violence and oppression that seems to saturate much of our world is the intentional cultivation of relationships in which “the radically different other” becomes a close and trusted friend.