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Misconceptions of interfaith work #2: Interfaith is only for “religious people”

This is part 2/3 of a series that seeks to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about interfaith work. Check out misconception #1 here: “Interfaith work dilutes one’s own faith”     Is interfaith work only for “religious people”? A couple of months back, I invited friends over to dinner at my house. As I was finishing cooking our meal, my friend started asking me about my new job. I explained that it was a small (but terribly mighty) nonprofit that worked on issues of social and environmental justice, equality, and interfaith dialogue. I told him that we we’re trying to expand our membership if he was interested in volunteering. His response:  “Oh, cool. But I don’t really do that religion thing.” That’s the sentiment that I have heard time and time again regarding what we call “interfaith work.” The root of the issue: ask a dozen people what they think the term “interfaith” means and who participates in it and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Interfaith work is for people who want to be in a community that crosses the lines among religions, beliefs, and philosophies. We use the term “interfaith” with an understanding that it is imperfect. The term “interfaith” comes with a lot of baggage for some people. Why do we use it? Well, honestly, there aren’t many great alternatives. Inter-religious is sometimes used, but many Hindus, Buddhists, and indigenous religious adherents do not consider themselves to be “religious” – at least in the Western sense of the term. Interbelief could work, but is vague and puts the focus on believing something- which not all “religionists” place a high value on. So, we are stuck with an imperfect word that might not always fully represent the realized diversity of this work. But as we break this down- the problem isn’t “inter” but rather, it’s the “faith” that is the point of disagreement. So, what do we mean by “faith” in "interfaith" work? For many people, when they consider the word “faith,” ideas of religious belief or religious institutions come to mind. But it’s much bigger than that. Faith implies a trust or confidence in something – something in which you do not have control over. When I consider interfaith work I consider people’s beliefs, ethics, and values. The word “faith,” if you allow it, is a much larger and inclusive term than others. I just think the Wyoming Interfaith/Interbelief/Interethical/& Intervalue Network doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Another consideration: It takes a sort of “faith” to do interfaith work because interfaith work requires you put your trust and respect in other people that you may disagree with on certain issues. We don’t have a belief statement that we require members to sign or ask that members submit proof of their religiosity to us to join. We don’t all need to agree on everything to work together – we just need to have mutual respect and determination to work on the project we set forth to work on. Don’t think that interfaith work simply requires tolerance – we intend to go beyond mere tolerance. We must actively engage with each other for the common good. This requires work and trust. Some might even say that it requires a kind of “faith.” We see people with diverse identities teaming up across lines of difference and actively engaging with each other toward the common good throughout our communities all the time: We see it in the nurses of an overcrowded ICU alongside others that have different religious or political beliefs  We see it in the men and women serving in combat with each other that have different religious designations on their dog tags. We see it in the grade school teacher that validates and respects the diverse cultures and identities in her classroom.  Now, I don’t mean to shove the word “faith” down your throat and I don’t mean to require non-theists use the word “faith” to join our work. I’m only offering insight as to how I see and use the term. Why use the word “interfaith” at all? Because we value people’s deeply held religious beliefs, values, ethics, and philosophies—and if we can work together across these lines of difference, then we can create a just, equitable, and diverse world for everyone. In this work, every one of us has to be committed to something greater than ourselves – be it a god, gods, ethic, philosophy, scientific principle, or humanity.  To engage in “interfaith” work requires us to unlearn some things about each other and to learn new things. It requires us to actively engage with each other and pursue what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “beloved community.” Because interfaith work is radically inclusive and often times counter-cultural. I’ll make my main point clear: You don’t have to categorize yourself as religious or a “believer” to join in our interfaith work. What I often say to people now is that interfaith work is for “people of faith and people of compassion.” If you find yourself in one of those two categories, feel free to join us. 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 jordan@wyointerfaith.org


The Wyoming Interfaith Network, shares the vision of the Interfaith Alliance by bringing together the diverse voices of our own community to challenge religious and political extremism. We also work to protect religious freedom in ways that are most relevant to our community.
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Wyoming Interfaith Network. PO Box 1473, Laramie, WY 82073

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