by Clare Stern
“People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other. The most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. God is All-knowing and All-aware.”~ The Holy Quran
Ubuntu: I am because we are.
Each time I engage in interfaith work, or any kind humanitarian work for that matter, I have a reoccurring “awakening” that there is something so special about humans coming together to simply talk about everything and anything. We are meant for “togetherness;” it is in our nature as humans to want to share and talk about our stories and actually have someone listen about what is important to us. What we hold close to our hearts and souls. This is how we embrace each other. We recognize that we are different in our walks of life, but we all want to be heard and connect to each other.
This past week, The University of North Florida Interfaith Center was asked by a local organization called GlobaJax to create a student panel to speak about their religious/non-religious identities and what the have gained through interfaith dialogue and cooperation, as well as the leadership skills that we have gained throughout our activism in interfaith engagement. I had the distinct privilege of being on that panel.
Each panelist was given a list of questions asking, (1)‘how did you get involved in interfaith work’, (2)‘what skills have you developed since engaging in interfaith work,’ (3) what is your favorite activity you have participated in with interfaith work?” No one panelist had the same answer. One panelist said that she got involved with interfaith work because she needed a place to pray at the end of the day on campus since she had class late at night. Another panelist said, because she was looking for community and at the time she considered herself a “seeker” (since then she has found her TRUTH with Islam), and another was looking for more education about the other religions. My reasoning was because of my “religious mutt” background. I have never understood why people would judge others purely based on their religious background and not see someone for the individual as a whole. Your religious identity is only a fraction of your make-up as a citizen of the world. Many of the panelists said the skill that they have developed the most is the ability to listen. In order to truly listen to another person, you need to be proactive by taking notes and asking questions at the appropriate time. Interfaith dialogue and engagement is a two way street. When you think you are listening enough, that’s when you need to listen even more. The more you listen, the more you are able to get a more wholesome understanding of someone’s journey in life with something so sacred to them, their religious or non-religious ideology.
As a Christian, I am asked more often than not, how can you agree with something that is not rooted in Christian tradition? Through my interfaith activism, I have not only gained the skills to listen better to others, but to truly appreciate humanity more. Each time someone shares their story, it enriches my life. I have not only learned hard facts about that individual, but I have also seen the beauty and kindness that they have offered by sharing their story. I also see that we are more alike than we are different in those moments, especially if the engagement comes from young people. This is largely in part because of globalization and wanting a more understanding and tolerant world.
After the panel concluded with their statements, one of the international delegates from GlobalJax asked how we dealt with religious extremism. One of my fellow peers said, “we can calmly explain to them that interfaith dialogue is a means of cooperation and learning. If the individual [who is behaving in an extremist manner] is not willing to listen and abide by our Safe Space Guidelines, then as a matter of safety for myself, I most excuse myself from participation in any further dialogue.” We are not here to proselytize “interfaith activism” – we are here to educate each other and become better listeners so that we can become more religiously literate and competent. At the end of the day, we as humans just want to feel connected and heard by other human beings – that’s what interfaith dialogue and cooperation is all about.