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Training Interfaith Leaders for the Future

By Megan Weiss


“Say you wake up one morning and as you’re going through your Twitter feed you see something that really ticks you off because it degrades a certain group of people. You can Tweet all your friends about it, post something on Facebook, take a selfie of you burning the article. You can send a campus-wide Tweet and email about meeting in the dining hall at noon to discuss an action plan. You have one person contact the president, another person get in touch with the events office, another other clubs, the geeky guy in the corner (that would be me) making a flyer and deciding the best phrase to use in the Twitter hashtag, and by 6 p.m. you have an event planned to address the issue.
“This might be a slight exaggeration, but the truth is your generation has the ability to mobilize quicker than any generation before. I know this is cliché, but I mean it when I say you can make a difference.” 

         – Adam Garner, Interfaith Leadership Institute Leader

I heard Adam’s story at the closing lunch of the Interfaith Youth Core’s (IFYC) Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI) I attended this past August in Chicago, Illinois. He was right – “you can make a difference” is clichéd. I and probably most students today have heard it countless times throughout our academic careers. But Adam was absolutely serious when he said he and IFYC really mean it when they say it. Unlike other settings where I’ve been told I can make a difference but have then – while feeling empowered – been left wondering how I am supposed to make a difference, IFYC says “You can make a difference and we are going to give you tools to do so.” IFYC institutes turn out to be a testament to their commitment.

IFYC’s vision is to “make interfaith cooperation a social norm by training a critical mass of interfaith leaders,” focusing specifically on college students. Their leadership institutes are a primary method for realizing this vision. ILI’s are part of IFYC’s Better Together campaign, which consists of student-led events across the country that bring people together across lines of religious difference and promote positive relationships and interfaith cooperation. Their purpose is to give students both the skills to start a Better Together group on their campus and to foster these same skills in students who run Better Together programs on their campus. For this reason ILIs have two tracks, the 1.0 for those coming to the ILI for the first time, and 2.0 for those who have already attended an ILI.

The 1.0 track is based on a sequence of three ideas:

Voice: How do you define your personal identity and religious/philosophical identity? What got you involved/interested in interfaith work?

Engage: How do you get different religious/non-religious groups on your campus involved in interfaith cooperation? How do you handle conflict and “hot topics”?

Action: How do you organize around issues relevant to your campus? What will you take back to campus?

I think using this sequence is a very effective way to teach interfaith leadership. A person need to know themselves and why they are involved in interfaith cooperation before they can engage others in it; and without engaging people and groups in interfaith work we can’t take effective action through interfaith cooperation.

Track 2.0 focuses on evaluation, sustaining interfaith cooperation on campus, and continuing interfaith leadership after graduation. This was my first time at an ILI, so I can’t speak to the specifics of the 2.0 track, but including a second track focusing on these topics is a powerful follow-through. Evaluation is an essential part of leadership development, and to really make a difference you need to know how to sustain your impact and exercise your leadership as you go out into the world. Having a second track also encourages students to take action when they go back to campus so they have something to talk about if they attend a second institute.

My Experience

I come from a pretty religiously homogenous college. It can be a challenge to get students interested in interfaith events. So when I walked into the main room on the institute’s first day I was amazed. Here were about 200 people of diverse religious backgrounds, my age, all here for interfaith!

Some of the participants at this summer’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago. – Photo: Facebook

Some of the participants at this summer’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago. – Photo: Facebook

The main things I took away were knowledge and skills to more effectively mobilize people with different religious/philosophical views around a common issue – in other words, how to show people we are “better together.”

The different threads of the institute were valuable – the training sequence, “speedfaithing,” an “unconference” session, and time to hang out and get to know each other.

For me, though, the most valuable element in this interfaith leadership training was what we did during one of the “Engage” training sessions called “hot seat.” The group is given a ‘conflict scenario,’ and each person was asked, in turn, to assume the role of a leader of the Better Together campaign back on campus. An IFYC staff member played the person we were in conflict with, and one person would take the hot seat and have to respond to the situation on the spot.  The leader of the training session would periodically stop the conversation so someone new could take the hot seat.

In the scenario where I took the hot seat, a member of my Better Together group felt that Episcopalian students were being too “preachy,” and it was making her and other members feel uncomfortable. As I sat down on the hot seat, she was arguing that we should go over the safe space conversation rules extensively at every meeting, putting special emphasis on the rule about not preaching.

I asked if she had personally told the Episcopalian students that they were making her feel uncomfortable. She said no, but argued it wouldn’t matter, adamant that the only solution was to go over the safe space rules at every meeting. It occurred to me that her solution was “preachy” itself and would in some ways be mirroring back just what she felt the Episcopalian students were doing to her. When I said this, she was taken aback for a moment. She still thought we should go over the safe space rules, but her perspective had changed. By the end of my time in the “hot seat,” we had compromised on having a poster with the rules and briefly referencing it whenever we had a meeting.

Having to respond in real time was a powerful experience. It was easy to theorize how I would respond to a situation when I was watching other members in our group, but actually being in the situation was something entirely different. I had to constantly revaluate my thinking in accord with the responses I received. Doing this provided me with ideas for approaching different issues. It also taught me that an effective approach to conflict is finding a way to get each of them to empathize with the other.  

If I had one suggestion to improve this remarkable institute, it would be to spend some time focused on faith and faith practices. Identifying shared values and knowing how to mobilize people around a common issue are important parts of interfaith work, but I believe being an effective interfaith leader also includes having a strong understanding of your own tradition and practice as well as knowledge of other traditions’ particularities.

For instance, we could spend time teaching how to facilitate interfaith dialogue and how to express personal religious faith in a way that is both authentic and respectful. We need to be able to express our personal faith. Cooperative action is important, but to truly cross over the “faith line” as Eboo Patel, IFYC’s founder and president, calls it, I believe some deep dialogue is necessary. Another way of connecting more deeply would be to spend time developing what Patel calls a “theology of interfaith cooperation.” I gather and share a series of personal statements, stories, teachings, texts, scripture, history, heroes, and/or poetry that come from my own religious (or non-religious) tradition, a record that charts my involvement with interfaith cooperation.

I really enjoyed my time at the ILI. More importantly, IFYC delivers in cultivating skills necessary to build positive relationships and to foster cooperation among diverse groups of people – skills necessary to make a difference in a world that needs all the help it can get.