By Jack Gordon
BUILDING BRIDGES AMONG D.C.'S FAITH LEADERS
This year is going to be a big one for interfaith collaboration in our nation’s capital. And Millennials are going to be at the forefront.
Six months ago, a group of young D.C.-based organizers came together to discuss how we could invigorate more local interfaith service engagement amongst our peers. The opportunity was certainly there – Washington D.C. boasts a broad spectrum of faith communities involved in social justice campaigns and providing social services. But there was also a very obvious challenge: all the energetic young people in positions of responsibility were already working at capacity taking care of their own community’s projects. Their dedication and demanding schedules often didn’t allow them to cultivate deep relationships with other faith groups.
Sure, there are established organizations like The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and the Washington Interfaith Network, but even they have their areas of focus; and besides, there are literally hundreds of religious communities and institutions in the District, let alone the D.C. region, and no one effort could organize them all.
So, we set a straight-forward but ambitious goal: to hold a one-day gathering early in the new year and bring together as many young leaders from as many faith communities as possible for an opportunity to have focused conversations about mobilizing our peers across faith lines.
As the coordinating committee took shape, our diverse body of collaborators met once a month at a Palestinian restaurant (“if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that hummus is good”) to plan what came to be called the D.C. Young Adult Faith Leaders Summit.
Since D.C. is a city of neighborhoods, we decided the structure for the conversations would be based as much as possible around geographic areas. Participants living, working and/or worshiping in Georgetown would be grouped with others in Georgetown; those in Northeast would do the same. We figured that even in the age of email and social media, it would be more likely that our participants would actually follow up with one another if they were just a few minutes away. And we strived to create a balance of perspectives within the groups so that there would be the opportunity to meet representatives from smaller faith communities, such as Bahá’ís, Sikhs or Zoroastrians.
The end result was intentionally left open. We didn’t want to establish a new organization or draft a public statement; that would add just another obligation for our already over-burdened young leaders. Rather, we decided to give the participants the space and freedom to organically find the appropriate ways to collaborate moving forward, based on their resources and needs at the time.
By Election Day, we had arranged the logistics: the Latter-Day Saints Young Adult Ward offered to host us in their chapel; the Sikhs said they’d provide lunch; Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, took care of our photocopies and paper needs; Bahá’í, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim communities agreed to chip in as well. Things were really shaping up to be a truly integrated collaborative effort. We just needed our participants.
Admittedly, as outreach commenced, there was some confusion from invitees about what we were doing and who could attend. How did we define a leader? What if someone wasn’t part of a particular community or had multiple affiliations? The organizers tried to be as inclusive as possible, abiding the credo “a leader is someone who has a following,” whether that meant clergy, an activist, the director of an institution, or simply a respected voice in their community. As we arranged the groups, we also created a “Multiple Affiliations” category to respect participants who didn’t neatly fit into one box. We welcomed Humanists and agnostic/unaffiliated participants who worked for organizations that worked with religious communities.
In spite of an autumn and winter season that held a national election, two major holidays and the Presidential Inauguration (which combined threw all of Washington’s appointment schedulers into a tizzy), we ended up with just over 100 registrations and more than 70 actual attendees on the day of the event – numbers the coordinating committee was very proud of. These participants represented over a dozen distinct faith communities from all across the city, as well as the surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.
Recognizing the critical importance of involving young people in interfaith, community-building efforts, D.C.’s Mayor Vincent Gray warmly accepted to personally visit and address our gathering. In a packed meeting room, Mayor Gray spoke of the rapidly changing demographics of the city and how it is vital to embrace increasing, inevitable multiculturalism. At the same time, the mayor urged the assembled emerging leaders to ensure their communities continue providing a complement of direct services and sustainable poverty-reduction programs for vulnerable populations that are being pushed to the margins.
Later in the program, Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell and her colleague Ken Bedell, of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, addressed the summit. Rev. Girton-Mitchell lauded the goals of this gathering, even noting that calling it a “summit” – as opposed to a “retreat” – spoke to the focus on community engagement and moving forward. She advised our young participants that the best qualities of a leader are self-reflection and the ability to continually involve more people, particularly when it comes to service.
D.C. Religious Leaders Talk about Faith in Action
The most meaningful aspect of the program however was of course the opportunities for dialogue between participants of diverse faiths living, working and worshiping in the same neighborhoods. The organizing committee planned three conversation topics spread throughout the day: for the first, everyone took turns sharing a bit about themselves, their faith tradition, and the organizations/projects they work with; in the second, participants discussed successes and challenges mobilizing young people in their communities for service and social justice; and lastly, what we can do to support each other and encourage interfaith engagement moving forward. There was also a discussion of the intersection of religious values and environmental stewardship led by Joelle Novey of Interfaith Power & Light, and an invitation to join the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington by Rev. Clark Lobenstine.
During the reflections period toward the close of the program, we could all feel the excitement and appreciation of the ripe possibilities present in the room. In person and via Twitter, participants commented:
“[The most useful part of today’s summit was] getting a perspective of just how much is going on in the community around me. Faith communities are doing so much good, so getting a sense of that activity, and then having a dialogue around how we can work together [was beneficial.]”
“It was refreshing to come together with people of different faiths and see how God is truly working through each.”
“I didn’t know much about the histories of the different faiths. I loved having people from so many different perspectives.”
“I learned about the Methodist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their origins are amazing and admirable.”
“I learned the reason why Sikhs wear turbans. It will give me the opportunity to educate others about their religion.”
“I learned a lot more about the LDS community and had an opportunity to meet with some younger practitioners as well.”
“I learned more about Muslims and Sikhs to replace correct knowledge with my previous wrong knowledge in regards to these faiths.”
“Today’s first time I had an extended conversation with a Baha’i practitioner. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“It was very inspiring to hear about other people’s faith journeys. It makes me a better Catholic to learn about other traditions”
“We’ve all got a lot to learn from each other’s experiences – there is already so much knowledge that has been generated that we can build on.”
“Its not about the number of people who show up. It’s about the people who show up. Change can happen with even one person.”
“This is an impressive experience...we need a WHOLE lot more of this!”
“So charged after meeting so many great people and shared some great ideas. Already waiting for the next event...”
Keeping the lamp of interfaith unity aflame is not the task of one generation or another alone; it is a torch that needs to be passed on successively. And owing to the myriad ways faith and religion expresses itself, interfaith dialogue will always benefit from having another perspective at the table. It is an ongoing process, one that won’t be completed anytime soon, and we all have a role to play.
Ours is the most multicultural, pluralistic generation in the history of what is arguably the most multicultural, pluralistic country on earth. And Washington D.C., as our nation’s capital, needs to be the model of what can happen when those diverse communities – whether animated by common faith or otherwise – stand together. D.C. can be the model and it will be, I am confident, with the young leaders who attended our summit at the fore. I’m looking forward to what we build in year – and years – ahead.
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post, February 19, 2013