Surprised by Grace
Stepping Stones on My Interfaith Journey
by Megan Weiss
My first step into the interfaith world was an experience I had during a global issues class in high school. My teacher projected an image of a man wearing a turban holding a gun, violence ensuing in the background, and then asked a question: “Is this a terrorist or a man protecting his family?” I think all but three or four of us raised their hand for terrorist. I was appalled, so much so that I raised my hand and proceeded to observe that we had no idea of this man’s story. It’s ignorant, I claimed, to stereotype him based on his appearance. It was quite a feat for someone who had never spoken up in class like this before.
I knew little about Islam at that time. But I knew it was wrong to characterize all Muslims as terrorists, and my classroom experience generated a strong desire to be part of a movement to dispel these hateful stereotype-fueled perceptions.
An undergrad at the College of Saint Benedict/St. John’s University, I went to interfaith events and intentionally took courses in different religious traditions to fulfill my theology elective requirements.
Finding a Model
The next big stepping stone was a lecture from Valarie Kaur sponsored by our interfaith center. Her impassioned story about Sikh persecution after 9/11 because they wore turbans, her journey across the country to tell the stories of those who traditionally have had no voice, and her commitment to fighting hatred and injustice, blew me away.
Her emotions were so raw I could feel them in my soul, could feel the embers of what I felt in high school burst ablaze. I knew in that moment I wanted to commit myself to working for interfaith justice as she has. I joined the campus student interfaith leadership team (finally aware we had one). That led me to a Christian-Muslim dialogue group in St. Cloud where I helped plan and run events addressing the hostility among Christians and Muslims. I was no longer just a participant but a leader.
Getting Totally Involved
As a junior I decided to write a thesis for my undergraduate degree. After endless thought, I finally chose to write about the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization that does great work, but which I wanted to critique. I applied for a research scholarship for the summer. The application called for finding ways to spread my research beyond campus. Doing so led me to a ‘stepping stone’ which has been the foundation of my life since then.
I contacted Paul Chaffee, editor of The Interfaith Observer (TIO), on a whim. I knew little about TIO except that it publishes interfaith stories. To my surprise, he actually called me back (many of those I reached out to never got back to me). He told me that although TIO did not publish thesis-length documents, he was definitely interested in my research. Perhaps I could write a story about my IFYC research when I got further into it. I left the conversation thinking I’d never hear from him again. But what happened then still leaves me in awe.
Out of the blue, I received a call from Paul at the start of my senior year. He remembered me! Surprised morphed into shock when he asked if I wanted to become an intern and work for TIO. I had no idea why. What could have possibly stood out enough for him to decide months later that he wanted me on his team? I had no idea what I was getting into, but I made the leap to this next stone. And started out by writing a story about IFYC.
Through Paul and his wife Jan’s generosity I’ve attended the 2016 Parliament of the World’s Religions, been introduced to major players in the interfaith world, and made enough to afford living here in California for grad school. I’ve developed skills in web design and management, editing, article writing, and communications. They led me to the stone I currently stand on: graduate studies in interfaith.
Taking it to the Next Level
Undergraduate institutions are teeming with interfaith activities. I suspect there will soon be an interfaith requirement in every religion program. It is a different story at the graduate level. The accrediting Association of Theological Schools already requires coursework in in multifaith studies for the Master of Divinity degree, but in most seminaries, that’s about as far as interfaith goes. I had a hard time finding an interfaith program because simply put, there are not many out there yet. The recent surge in seminary closures is disconcerting. In a climate where religious hatred and bigotry seem to be on the rise, religious education and incorporating interfaith into vocational training is more important and enriching than ever. Why? And how? Let me explain using my own story.
I’m pursuing an M.A. in Religion, Society, and Social Change at Claremont School of Theology (CST), which is an exception to those sad trends I just mentioned. I had no idea CST existed before googling “interfaith graduate schools.” I was searching for programs that would enhance my ability to address interfaith hostility. Claremont is meeting that test.
At the end of my first year, I’ve already been deeply impacted. Theological institutions, especially those that make interfaith a part of their mission, as CST does, are wellsprings for deep, meaningful conversation. Nowhere else have I seen spontaneous discussions of topics such as what people believe about God; strategies for addressing climate change; the nature of reality; actions we as a school can take to support our Muslim neighbors. Faith doubts and explorations erupt in a computer lab!
Claremont offers a plethora of interesting courses, and my program offers considerable freedom in selecting courses, allowing me to explore where my niche is in the interfaith world. Available courses include:
- Abrahamic Faiths in Conversation
- Religion and Spirituality Manifesting in Hindu Art
- Interfaith Care and Counseling
- Women in the Book of Exodus
- Comparative Religious Practices of Restorative Justice Pedagogies: The End of Punishment
- Multi-Religious Contemplative Capacities for Engaged Compassion
- Sunni-Shia Relations and Intra-faith Issues
- Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization
We’re also offered opportunities for intentional conversation about issues such as climate change, racism, being an ally in the wake of the election, and decolonizing interfaith dialogue.
The academic knowledge I’ve acquired so far is invaluable. Even more so are the relationships I’ve formed and the understanding cultivated through them. There is a kind of deep wisdom we only learn from our conversations. Relationships – hands reaching out – are what lead us to new stepping stones, and are what have brought me this far on my interfaith path.
Not Always Easy
Not everything is butterflies and roses. First, students are busy – juggling jobs, friends, and family in addition to classes. I’m part of the InterReligious Council, and we have a hard time getting people to come to our events. I can tell people here deeply care about matters of interfaith and justice, but there are only so many things to which you can devote your spare time.
Second, having a religious affiliation inevitably influences life on campus. While intentionally interfaith, CST at its core is a Methodist institution. This is reflected in the on-campus student population, community chapel services which, while not strictly Methodist, often reflect Methodist tradition. Such institutional realities can make outsiders feel isolated. Being the only Catholic student on campus, at times I feel “homesick” for my Catholic community. Never though have I felt I lacked a loving community here.
Finally, while ideally CST wants interfaith conversation to occur in all courses, it doesn’t always fit in with all the required material that needs to be taught. To be sure, interfaith comments are always welcome in class, and professors give us a certain amount of freedom when it comes to our midterms and final papers.
Have I achieved my goal of committing my life to interfaith justice the way Valarie Kaur has? I’ve made no national impact, of course. But I’ve come to realize that small actions can be as important as large ones, and that the “stone path” of interfaith is not linear.
I can choose a variety of stones to explore and may find myself dancing on multiple stones. Along with my work as TIO’s webmaster, next year I will be interning with EcoCiv and The Center for Spirituality and Sustainability. And I’ve always had a passion for listening and helping people heal and process their experiences; so doing some type of therapy or chaplaincy may also be in my future.
Regardless of what I do, interfaith will always be an integral part of my life and work. CST and TIO have shown me how much interfaith resides outside the box of specifically religious/interfaith work (e.g., religious vocations or staffing interfaith organizations). The stepping stones to interfaith are all around me, and the best way to step forward is to grab the hands reaching out.