Tuesday, August 10, 2010

From the Intern Files: An Atheist Interning in an Interfaith Land

By Sierra Pirigyi, Project Interfaith Intern

A love of nonprofit work brought me to Project Interfaith. A fascination with the possibilities of interfaith relations has made me stay.

When I moved to Omaha for school, I was hoping I could land a job with a nonprofit. I previously held a work study position with Project WISE, a nonprofit in Denver dedicated to helping low-income women. I was a Music Industry Studies major, and wanting to run my own business, I figured an office job would give me the type of skills and experiences I would need. I worked as an Administrative Assistant for Project WISE and was fortunate enough to be surrounded by the most amazing group of women. During my time there, I fell in love with idea of working in nonprofit. I’ve always wanted to help people. I wanted to help people make their dreams of stardom come true. Now I wanted to help them with something more important.

Last fall, on my first day of philosophy class, I mentioned that I wanted to work in nonprofit. My professor, Dr. Rayka Rush, told me that she serves on the Advisory Council for a nonprofit in Omaha that may be looking for an intern. She told me about Project Interfaith, showed me the blog, and eventually introduced me to Beth. Interfaith, I thought. Hmm…

At first I wasn’t sure that it was right for me. I’m an atheist. I haven’t always been an atheist (a topic for another post, perhaps), but I am now, and I definitely never pictured myself working in anything that involves religion. I’ve always been interested in religion and learning about different religious beliefs, but I thought of it as just an interest. I considered majoring in Religious Studies, but I thought that would be weird, not being religious myself. I guess I just counted myself out. If I don’t believe in God, why would I study Him?

So when Project Interfaith came up, I had to think about it. But I knew that even though I don’t have any religious beliefs, I don’t hate religion itself. I may have some personal qualms with religious institutions and some of the actions made “in the name of God,” but I don’t take issue with people’s personal beliefs. In fact, I often find them beautiful. I just don’t happen to believe any of it.

I decided Project Interfaith would provide me with a great opportunity to learn more about nonprofit work, as well as introduce me to a field of work that, although I recognized as important, in reality I knew nothing about. I started my internship in February, and I don’t think I really understood what interfaith relations were when I first started. Yes, of course everybody should try to get along. But what exactly do religious beliefs have to do with it? Obviously, there are places in the world that are embroiled in religious conflict, and growing understanding and respect in those areas is important. But beyond Kashmir and Palestine, there’s a fundamental reason I see for growing understanding between those of different faiths, beliefs and cultures—because it’s such an important part of people’s lives and identities.

Religion has never been a big part of my life, so it never really occurred to me to consider the fact that it is the biggest part of life for billions of people throughout the world. There’s such a personal connection to these beliefs, and they play such a large part in people’s lives, dictating their behavior and worldview, that I think it’s impossible to dismiss the importance of it when it comes to relationship-building. If I can recognize someone else’s beliefs as important to them as mine are to me, only then can I begin to understand and build relationships with them. When you are able to connect on such a fundamental level, understanding each other when it comes to the big things in life, the little things that separate us seem trivial in comparison.

I am here to help Project Interfaith continue to grow relationships, respect and understanding between those of every faith, belief and culture. I feel this is an often overlooked aspect of relations, because we don’t want to talk religion, because we might offend somebody. Before coming to Project Interfaith, I thought that interfaith relations were about basic agreement—taking another life is wrong, for example—but I now realize that it’s not about agreeing. It’s about understanding. And it’s hard to offend somebody if all you’re trying to do is understand.

This is the second in a series of posts by the Project Interfaith summer interns. They're reflecting on what drew them to interfaith work and to decide to work in the tiny work space with a big heart that is Project Interfaith as well as sharing their adventures in interfaith work. You can learn more about Sierra by visiting the Project Interfaith website, finding her on Facebook and Twitter (@spirigyi), or emailing her at sierra@projectinterfaithusa.org.

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