I left my hotel room early and, guided by Google Maps, walked through downtown Atlanta towards Georgia State University. I was alone in a city that I did not know, about attend a conference with hundreds of students I had never met. It was like the first day of college all over again. I was anxious, even though I knew I shouldn’t be. It was an Interfaith Youth Leadership Conference, so the people should be nice, right? And if nothing else, it would all be over in just a few days. Still, as I ascended the steps of the Loudermilk Conference Center, I stopped and wondered if this had all been a bad idea. I could be at home right now, relaxing with my friends, completely comfortable. But, I knew that I wanted to be here, that somewhere deep down I needed to be. I opened the door and went inside.
Hundreds of students from over fifty universities milled about in purple IFYC (Interfaith Youthcore) shirts, wearing name tags, and clothing representing their schools. Most were in coalitions, large groups of students from the same interfaith program. I was Chapman’s only representative and felt awkward. But within moments, experienced interfaith leaders descended upon me and introduced me to students from across the country and the world. Just as expected, they were all very nice. But beyond that, each person I talked to also radiated a palpable optimism. Despite the exceedingly difficult, often terrifying time in which we are living, each person at the conference was hopeful that through interfaith work we could help take even just a small step towards progress.
We were soon ushered into the main ballroom, where we ate and talked until our emcees, Hannah and Prerna, took the stage. Hannah and Prerna were interfaith activists who had met at the Interfaith Leadership Conference years before. Despite their deep differences – Hannah is a white, Republican and a Catholic, while Prerna identifies as a secular, Hindu woman of color – they had become good friends and had remained so even through the most recent election cycle. Hannah and Prerna said that they had done so by focusing on the common values that they shared rather than the issues that divided them. But both Hannah and Prerna insisted that this did not mean that they had avoided difficult or even painful conversations. They encouraged us to speak honestly and openly to one other and to listen intently and thoughtfully, making sure to respect the person you were speaking to even if you did not agree with them.
We then broke into groups named after famous interfaith activists. I was on team Ruth Messinger. We gathered in a small classroom and began “Speedfaithing”, a rapid-fire Q&A of a partner’s deep philosophical beliefs and personal identity. These simple, two-minute introductory conversations ended up being one of the conference’s most impactful learning experiences because everyone I met seemed to be a walking contradiction. I talked with agnostic Jews, questioning, gay Muslims, spiritually-minded atheists, pro-choice Catholics, Pagans who believed in a God, and more. It was wonderful and surprising, but also made me aware of my own biases. I felt ashamed. Even though I had approached these other students with kindness and openness, I had also pre-judged them, confined them to stereotype before ever getting to know them. I felt like I had failed as an interfaith leader.
In a way though, that was the whole point of the exercise. When we reflected as a group, I began to see that everyone carried prejudices. We decided to confront these prejudices head on. Each of us wrote down a stereotype that we had learned from parents, friends, or the media and anonymously taped them around the room. We were then told to examine what we all had written. It was shocking. Even within a room full of activists, there were deep and offensive stereotypes plastered across the walls. Now of course, not everyone believed the biases they had written down. But the fact that everyone had been exposed to them, that everyone to some extent carried these false narratives with them proved chilling and indicative of our divided time. But there was also hope. Despite the unsettling commonality of prejudice, the fact that we were reflecting on and acknowledging our biases was the first step towards counteracting them. By stepping out of our internal comfort zones, by challenging the state of mind that says, “I’m not racist, sexist, biased, etc.” and accepting our own prejudices, we were able to push ourselves as interfaith leaders.
Confronting deeply held beliefs takes bravery, openness, and a belief that things really can change. It is also an essential part of being a modern interfaith leader, a point that Eboo Patel, American-Muslim and founder of IFYC, touched on in his speech at the end of the conference. Eboo urged us to get out of our comfort zone as activists, insisting that “true diversity is not just the differences you like.” He cited examples of great interfaith leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., visionaries who did not seek revenge or retribution after they succeeded in social change, but rather worked towards building what MLK dubbed “the beloved community.” In other words, despite our differences, we will still all have to live together. So, we must learn how to acknowledge our disagreements, while maintaining respect and appreciation for the other side. And this is why it is so essential to step out of our comfort zones. This can be done by literally stepping out, by going to an interfaith conference like I did, or by attending a protest or town hall meeting for an issue you feel passionately about. And it can be done personally; by reflecting on your own biases or working towards starting a dialogue with those you disagree with or don’t know. Of course, everyone must set their own limits and I must acknowledge my own privilege as I write this call to action. But ultimately, the Interfaith Leadership Institute taught me that these small personal steps that we take are what eventually add up to move our society forward.