This is part one of a series that seeks to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about interfaith work.
One of the most common misconceptions surrounding interfaith work is that learning, dialoguing, and serving with people of other religious and faith backgrounds weakens or dilutes one’s own faith. From my experience, this could not be further from the truth.
I spent two years teaching social studies in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. I moved from the high plains desert of Laramie, WY to an actual Arabian desert in the Middle East. From the mostly-white and mostly-Christian (71% of ppl in Wyoming identify as Christian) to the not-so-white and very much not Christian (roughly 77% Muslim). I worked alongside with Shia and Sunni Muslims, Catholic and Coptic Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics. This was quite the change for a white guy from Wyoming. I didn’t even realize until some months after I moved back that I lived and breathed an interfaith life in my time in the Emirates.
I did not have a choice to become an interfaith leader and learn (albeit clumsily) how to accommodate so many different religious and faith identities in the classroom. One of the key skills of interfaith leadership is the ability to articulate your own theology or ethic of interfaith cooperation. This articulation of stories, scriptures, teaching, and texts not only help you tell an inclusive story that affirms your own beliefs, but also promotes religious pluralism. In my work and life in a religiously diverse school and community, other people’s religious lives forced me to look inward and reflect upon my own religious identity.
According to this misconception, my time living in the UAE should have diluted my faith and made me “less Christian”. Apparently, my time being employed by a Muslim, teaching along with Muslims, and teaching Muslim students should have sent me into some sort of bewildering faith spiral. And in some ways, it did.
My faith did change as a result of spending some time in the “minority”. I did reexamine my beliefs, my upbringing, and my relationship with Christianity. Being around people of a different religious identity on a daily basis did not dilute my faith, but it strengthened it, and anyone that has been privileged enough to become submersed in such diverse groups will tell you the same thing.
Many of my students were faithful Muslims—eating Halal, reciting Qur’an, giving alms, praying five times a day—and most, if not all, were doing this by choice. They wanted to pray. They wanted to recite the Qur’an more precisely. They wanted to learn how to give better. I taught students, who would cite their faith as their primary influence, that wanted to become civil rights lawyers, veterinarians, pediatricians and so on. How could you not be inspired by these kids?
As a result of being surrounded by people of a different religious identity, I reexamined and experienced a reawakening of my own. I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of the history of Christianity and the Episcopal movement in particular. I started to read books about the Christian mystics, dove into the practice of lectio divina, and reexamined my relationship with the church. All of this was because of my interfaith relationships and experience, not in spite of them.
On Wednesday nights in the basement of the union at the University of Wyoming, a group of people meets to study Torah. Dr. Seth Ward has led this group in some form for many years. The study lasts about 30 minutes and everyone is invited. The study follows Jewish sources, generally looking at Rashi and other Midrash. The group has attracted atheists, evangelicals, LDS, and orthodox Jews. Passages are studied, interpretations read, and conversations grow from there. We all come together because we want to learn, whether the intent is religious, academic, or simply based on curiosity. The point isn’t to leave with the same understanding of the text or the belief that one interpretation is better than another; we leave with what we can. For me, I usually leave this Torah study with a desire to connect to the Scriptures at a deeper level. My Jewish friends discuss and debate and will often ask me “how is this interpreted by Episcopalians?” More often than not, the answer is met with a shrug and then a genuine attempt at an answer. I leave with wanting to know more about my own tradition.
Interfaith work should not and does not dilute your faith identity—it strengthens it. When we engage with each other in service or dialogue we don’t somehow lose our history, experiences, or spiritual center. When we come together with others, we reflect on aspects of our identity we don’t often get to explore. We discover new aspects of our own religious or ethical traditions because we’re asked questions by someone who was not raised in that tradition. We are inspired to learn about our own traditions because we see other practice theirs with such beauty and inspiration and want to dig into our own.
Jordan Bishop is the Executive Director of WIN and lives in Laramie with his fiancé Dakota and their Airedale named Bosler. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org