Thursday, September 23, 2010

Interfaith Not Built in a Day

By Philip Lomneth, Guestblogger

There in the room with me were the college pastor, a vice president, an esteemed faculty member, and several students. These were the people who could either help initiate an interfaith center on campus or could discard all the research, coalition building, writing and rewriting we did the past few months. Upon discovering that recent renovations would move the religion department out of the basement of the campus’s chapel and open the area to a variety of possibilities, a handful of students and I wrote a proposal to create an interfaith center in the space.

Now, three other students and I fielded questions from the planning committee entrusted with advising the president on possible uses for the space. Things seemed to be going well – all the preparation had paid off and we anticipated most of the questions that they threw at us. Then came the one no one expected. The pastor leaned over, elbows on his knees, hands clasped in front of his snowy white beard, stared us straight in the eyes, and asked, “Now, how can you assure me that this all isn’t some fad that will disappear in a couple of years?” I could hardly stifle my laughter.

A fad? If you could judge the level of interfaith dialogue at St. Olaf by the number of “Coexist” bumper stickers, then you would expect to hear faith conversations virtually everywhere you went. Unfortunately, what appears on people’s bumpers hardly gives an accurate picture of interfaith relations on campus.

The past few years, I’ve been part of a small interfaith organization, trying to increase awareness about different faiths as well as encourage collaboration between the various faith-based organizations on campus. This work, though rewarding, has been anything but easy. Our group struggles for relevance when many people think that the best way to treat people of other faiths is just to let them do their own thing. We strive to foster dialogue about faith when so many people feel uncomfortable talking about their beliefs outside of a group of their closest acquaintances or people who share similar convictions. Interfaith may well be popular in the sense that people understand the importance of learning about different religions, but when people come face to face with someone of a different worldview to discuss a topic that may well highlight the differences, the enthusiasm dissipates.

So how does one foster interfaith interaction in a community? After making plenty of mistakes, I think I’ve learned that often the first action one should take is to ask questions. Who makes up the community? How do individuals and groups relate to the community? How do people express their faith? What frightens, what excites, what intrigues people in this community? Perhaps it’s just me, but even though it seems obvious to try to understand a community before working with people, the enthusiasm of my passion often prevents me from adapting to the situation. I know to channel the fervor differently now.

Currently in my third year at St. Olaf, I feel I have a comfortable understanding of the community’s interests and commitments, so I can adapt my ideas to what people find worthwhile. I like to dream big and always have a collection of ideas I would like to see happen, but matching dreams with resources and community interest always proves to be a difficult problem. I may want to put on an extensive interfaith retreat, discussing what interfaith is, listening to speakers explore various traditions, and learning about how people came to be interested in interfaith work, but if I am the only one in attendance, what good have I done for the community? Initial endeavors for interfaith groups often must be low-key. And though one wants them to be provocative, one should be wary lest they estrange others.

By the end of last school year, the interfaith group here had fallen in membership to one core and a handful of periphery members. Our dialogue had neither been frequent nor meaningful enough to keep us together. Despite our limited status, upon finding out about the opportunity to create a permanent space dedicated to interfaith relations, our bonds revived, and we jumped at the chance. Now, we have started to feel the impact we made; interest has grown around our organization, and we recently found out some of our recommendations are being sent to the college president for further review. To make an impact in your community, you don’t need to be a large, powerful organization. Our group depended on the enthusiasm and commitment of a few members, and from our projects we developed connections with lasting impacts. An interfaith community is not built in a day; people desire continual and meaningful engagement. And as people build relationships, dreams become reality.

Philip Lomneth is a Roman Catholic who grew up in Omaha, attended parochial and public schools, and goes to a private Lutheran college in Minnesota. He is fascinated with issues of identity: the way we shape it, how it shapes us, and how people use identities in interactions with others. He's not sure where he's headed in life, but knows he has passions for interfaith engagement and social justice which have been fueled in part by groups like Project Interfaith.

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