Creating Interfaith Community in San Francisco
Interfaith Young Adult Urban Field Trip
Seventeen young adults, mostly in their twenties, gathered in San Francisco on February 2 for an urban field trip with a unique mission: to explore what a thriving interfaith young adult community would look like in the city. Through United Religions Initiative (URI), I was organizing the trip as a part of our Bay Area Young Leaders Program.
Most of the participants had never met each other before. They brought varying levels of interfaith experience and came representing diverse faith and secular communities. Every one of them was taking a leap of faith by giving up his or her Saturday to explore the intangible with strangers.
It’s significant to note that this group is reflective of what the young adult community genuinely looks like in San Francisco. Being involved in the Bay Area interfaith world for the past year and a half, I have been shocked at the lack of space for the religiously unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics at interfaith events. According to the 2012 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the PEW Forum found that close to 1 in 5 people in the country identify as unaffiliated with any religion; and many of those unaffiliated are young people. Yet I have not been to a single interfaith dialogue or event locally which featured an unaffiliated speaker.
While coordinating this event and doing outreach for our interfaith network, we, as organizers, made a concentrated effort to include individuals who are unaffiliated. The gap between those with faith and those without faith can many times be even larger than the gap between different faiths. As an atheist who is passionate about interfaith activism, I also know that there are a large number of us who are interested in learning more about faith traditions and working in solidarity for the benefit of the larger community.
The February 2nd “Urban Field Trip” started at 11 am at the Shambhala Center, where the group gathered for introductions, ice breakers, and to set the context and tone for the day. The day included stops at Masjid Darussalam, the largest mosque in San Francisco; St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, a female led congregation serving the city for over 160 years; and the Zen Buddhist Center, a residential monastery and meditation school. We journeyed from one place to the other on foot, walking through some of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods of San Francisco. The journey spurned organic conversations and tough questions about what each of the faith communities is doing in social programs and outreach.
At each stop, participants were able to dive into three different categories of experience: aesthetics of the physical space, immersion into ritual and practice, and dialogue with faith leaders. As we debriefed over dinner at the end of the day, it was clear that each space had affected individuals in unique ways. Some young adults called upon language from their faith when describing their experience, others had a more difficult time describing just how they felt in each space. But as we had hoped, all the participants agreed that immersing ourselves in a tradition different from our own was undeniably valuable.
Creating Interfaith Community in an Urban Context
Having worked with faith groups for the past year and a half, it is clear to me that “community” is the most valuable thing organized religion offers. The support, solidarity, ready affection, and feeling of brotherhood one feels in a worship community are not easily replicated elsewhere. So, as our URI office intern Emily asks, “Is there a community which is able to embrace all of us?”
Faith spaces are able to create a safe community for youth from diverse walks of life, cultures, and experience levels, because they’re bound together by common intangible beliefs. Can we effectively create such a community for individuals of different faiths, no faiths, and across all cultural lines? What would such a community look like? How would it sustain itself? These are the questions that hang around my office at all times. Literally. These questions are scribbled on post-it notes and organized onto poster paper in Venn diagrams. And these are questions our slowly forming interfaith young adult community is attempting to answer through experiential learning.
Part of the fear in creating something that doesn’t already exist is doubting if it really is necessary. Does San Francisco really need an interfaith youth community? The answer to this question was unclear for an uncomfortably long period of time. We have been experimenting with organizing monthly service projects, and quarterly dialogues on specific themes; and nothing has seemed to stick.
But as I get ready to send a last reminder email out for our interfaith field trip follow-up dinner at the Urban Life Center tonight (and to order plenty of vegetarian pizza for us to eat!!), I know that we are at the beginning of something significant.
Looking over the RSVP list, I see Quakers and Buddhists, Sikhs and Agnostics, Lutherans and Unitarians, Muslims and Atheists, all young, all local, all excited to spend their evening exploring how to create an inclusive community across religious and cultural lines in our city. I feel incredibly grateful to be a part of this group. It’s February 28, 2013, and San Francisco will be just fine.