A better way to talk about faith

Student groups find innovative ways to bridge religious differences

By David Bornstein

The New York Times

Published: Friday, June 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Most likely — particularly if they got to know people who embodied those values. In their book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell draw on social science to show how strongly our relationships shape our attitudes about other groups. "We can show in a quite rigorous way that when you become friends with someone of a different faith, it not only makes you more open-minded to people of that faith, it makes you more open-minded about people of all other faiths. It makes you more tolerant generally," says Putnam. "That's the fundamental premise of the Interfaith Youth Core's work."

IFYC's Better Together campaigns are based on these insights: the most reliable way to improve attitudes about religious groups is to intentionally foster meaningful relationships across lines and gain "appreciative knowledge" about other faith traditions. The worst thing society can do is to continue what it's doing today: allowing attitudes to be shaped by the shrillest voices, the voices of intolerance, political expedience and xenophobia. "If we don't talk openly about faith and bring people from different traditions together, we forfeit the conversation to people who are happy to build barriers," notes Patel. Quoting the philosopher Michael Sandel, he added, "Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread."

What is the secret to facilitating exchanges that lead to meaningful relationships? "You need to begin by focusing on a value that is commonly shared — like mercy, compassion for the poor, care for the environment or service — something that invites people to bring the best of who they are and the best of what their tradition is about," explains April Mendez, IFYC's vice president for leadership. "You walk away from a conversation like that inspired and appreciative about the diversity around you."

Next, leaders reach out across the campus to bring students together to act on a widely shared value through service. In 2010, for example, students at the University of Illinois engaged thousands of volunteers and sent a million meals to Haitians after the earthquake. This year, students from Ohio University cleaned up a local waterway. At Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill., they held a Thanksgiving fast-a-thon and raised money for a local homeless shelter. At Dominican University, in River Forest, Ill., they organized a "Speed Faithing" exchange. Elsewhere, students organized blood drives, interfaith dinners, campaigns against sexual violence and assistance for homeless youth — in each instance, reflecting on how their commitment to help others is informed by their beliefs or world views.

This is different from the way interfaith dialogues are typically structured. Here, the conversations are led by students, not religious scholars; they intentionally include agnostics and atheists; and they are not focused on religious teachings per se but rather students' relationship to their faith or their philosophical beliefs.

All this is critical, explained Vatina McLaurin, an incoming junior at Augustana, who helped lead the fast-a-thon campaign and who was raised as a Christian but identifies as an agnostic or "seeker." "When you're asking students to engage in conversation about faith," she said, "it's important to remind them that they don't have to speak for their whole religion. They're just there to talk about their faith or beliefs in a personal way."

Nor is the goal of an interfaith conversation to arrive at agreement. "Interfaith work isn't about watering down our religion and coming to some consensus about things," explains Aamir Hussain, a Muslim student at Georgetown University who helped students from Georgetown and Syracuse University, historic basketball rivals, mobilize a food drive. "It's about building relationships so we can together serve others."

Greg Damhorst, an evangelical Christian currently pursuing a combined medical degree and Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, recalled the campaign he worked on to assist Haitians with food. "We had people from every political and religious tradition," he explained. "Many have been at odds with one another. If you put them in a room with certain topics you could create the most abrasive argument. But we brought them together to help people in need and, through that process, people were inspired by one another — and they learned new things." Damhorst learned about the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and the importance of service in Islam and Jainism.

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