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Nicholas Hayes – What Defines a Millennial Interfaith Leader

For the Sake of Justice

Nicholas Hayes of Criterion Institute is the second young leader interviewed in this three-part series with Millennial leaders in the interfaith movement.  To see the first, with Jen Bailey of Faith Matters Network, click here.

Often in the interfaith movement, we speak about the changes in the religious landscape and the impact these sociological, religious and political shifts have on the movement. Rarely, however, do we get the chance to hear from young leaders of the movement, who spend time thinking about and challenging our expectations on what it means to be a leader in the interfaith movement itself.

Several months ago, three other young leaders and I formed an intentional group to think through these questions together and to be a resource to one another. We discovered that this group is a huge asset in breaking down the isolation that can exist between our organizations whose missions sound and appear harmonious. We wanted to dig deep into these challenges and see what would come of it.

To share some of these insights, Religions for Peace USA sat down with each of these leaders and asked them the same three questions

  1. What does it mean to be an interfaith leader in the 21st Century
  2. What does being a good leader mean to you?
  3. You’ve recently formed a community of praxis. Why did you form this group? And what did it do for you that other communities weren't?


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Nicholas Hayes

Religions for Peace USA: Welcome Nicholas. Tell us, what does it mean to be an interfaith leader in the 21st century?

Nicholas: Thanks, Aaron! That’s a question I’ve thought about a lot this past year, and I should put my cards on the table right at the outset. I have a stake in a particular kind of interfaith leadership: interfaith leadership oriented toward justice. I’ve identified as an interfaith enthusiast since middle school. But I’ve been through too many interfaith events aimed at “mutual understanding” or “conversation” that feel nice – and then don’t go anywhere. It’s easy to lose sight of what a luxury that version of interfaith work often is. There’s so much injustice in the world, all complexly interwoven with religion: don’t we need to hold ourselves accountable for doing something about it? Isn’t that what many of our faiths call us to, albeit in sometimes very distinct ways?

My own story plays a role here. I grew up as a closeted gay boy in a small, conservative town in rural Michigan that was religiously homogenous and, in many ways, fearful of ‘the other.’ My parents, however, raised me with very different values. My mother, in particular, a Latina, was a Liberation Theology Catholic who taught me a core of commitment to justice and peace, and, in other religions, expressions of the divine. Coming of age in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq War, and widespread vilification of Islam – certainly at play in my hometown – I found myself really gravitating towards learning about other religions (especially Islam) and interfaith peace work, which seemed urgently important. I identified with reaching across differences because, in my own environment, I felt “other” myself.

Early in my interfaith work and identity, I fell into a few traps. The first was framing all religions as, somehow, really “one” – that is, essentially expressions of the same thing, and for that reason, all worthy of reverence. The second trap, not wholly consistent with the first, was seeing the world in terms of a conflict between the “tolerant,” “liberal,” or “enlightened” forms of religion – the right kinds of religion, which engaged in interfaith work – and those “backward” and “intolerant” forms that would never do interfaith work (such as the fundamentalist Protestants from my own past).

Being interfaith went hand in hand with being “liberal,” in that word’s many meanings. I was, for a time, one of those emphatically – and ironically – tolerant people, profoundly intolerant only of “the intolerant.”

Saul Alinsky – Photo: Wikipedia

What came after that disillusion was a new experience of interfaith in the form of faith-based organizing – specifically, within the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation) programs inspired by Saul Alinsky.

Faith-based organizing is oriented to what people of faith, in their full diversity, can do together to achieve a common good. It has given my interfaith vision a particular cast. Meaningfully acting together requires deep and intentional work at building personal relationships across difference. What gets that work started, though, is believing you can do something good together – inch one step closer to “justice” – even without agreeing on everything or having the same vision. You keep rooted in finding particular things you can do together, that all of you recognize as good. And then along the path of action, you build a deeper kind of trust and understanding than you could ever find by intellectually agreeing on the same beliefs.

Some deep-rooted disagreements may remain. The person working with you might not believe your religion is true or your sexuality is morally acceptable. I’ve had that experience, for sure. But if you’re both willing to work together in a particular fight for justice, a relationship can form that’s deeper than your disagreements.

Reaching across our differences to act together for justice – that’s what I hope interfaith leadership in this century looks like.

RfPUSA: What does being a good leader mean to you?

Nicholas:  I think a good interfaith leader is someone deeply rooted and centered in their own particular tradition, committed to acting for justice, and capable of effectively inviting others into action. Also, someone with a sharp critical awareness of themselves, their tradition, and a critical analysis of society at large and the interfaith movement itself.

RfPUSA: So, define leadership for us:

Nicholas:Leadership’ as a word, I think, often has normative force. When defining it, it’s hard to separate what leadership is from what one believes leadership should be. A person can be an effective leader without doing good, or one can do good without leading effectively. I think it’s important to keep that distinction in mind.

Marshall Ganz, an organizer who taught me, uses a definition of leadership that has more or less been my own for the last several years:  “A leader is one who accepts responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.” Working within the confines of this definition, I haven’t found much reason to challenge it: it’s still my foundation. If I were to define leadership myself, though, I’d add a few other things I’ve picked up along the way:

●       A leader understands and uses the power of invitation. So many people want to act, but are waiting for someone to give them the appropriate invitation. My current organization, Criterion, really emphasizes that.

●        A leader takes risks first and is willing to make decisions when others are not.

●        A leader behaves as he or she believes, and models by example.

●        A leader is hospitable, welcoming the stranger and open, willing to be challenged.

●        A leader is creative and can work within uncertainty.

●       A leader is present to self and present to others. Presence is required for succeeding in most of these ways.

●        A leader is a good storyteller

RfPUSA: You’ve recently formed a community of praxis. Why did you form this group? And what did it do for you that other communities weren’t?

Nicholas: Within the faith-based justice community, I have many friends who are either more rootless or more rooted than myself. They’re either very caught up in the particular things they’re doing, in their particular context, or they don’t feel rooted at all and are trying to find their place, their niche. I’m somewhere in the middle. I have a sense of rootedness – in my faith tradition, my local community, my other contexts (organizing, academia) – but I’m always wondering whether I’m too rooted. I get really caught up in “big-picture” thinking, and wonder: how do we change the systems in our society, even our world, to move it towards justice? How can I have the biggest impact in that myself? Those questions make it hard to be content, wherever I am.

I needed a group of people at roughly the same point in life, with the same questions as me – about themselves, about the world, about God and where our society is going. Big picture thinkers, rooted in their faith and spiritual life, who also have a true drive and enthusiasm to move toward practical answers. People for whom faith and spiritual life is a key part of the answer! That is what the community of praxis provides for me: a group of peers whose professional and personal evaluation I take seriously, and with whom I feel safe. People who hold me accountable to being the kind of person, and leader, I want to be. That’s so precious.