Thursday, August 25, 2011

From the Intern Files: The Interfaith Opportunist

by Project Interfaith Intern, Natalie Hatfield

No one really wants summer to end, but every ending is just the beginning of something new. I’m actually really looking forward to the new semester and the new classes I’m taking. Well at least the interesting ones! Not only does a new school year mean new classes, but it also brings new people and new opportunities to improve interfaith relations in Omaha. Our city has the distinct advantage of having a large international population both in the community and at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Over 1400 international students from over 116 countries study at UNO. Along with interning at Project Interfaith, I am the Director of International Student Services at UNO and the most important part of my job is to plan events that allow people from all around the world to come together. Through the events, I see a lot of these interactions and have come to realize that with so many international students comes a variety of religious beliefs.

I helped out with orientation for new international students, and though I didn’t even come close to meeting all of the 80+ students, I talked to individuals who practice Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and an atheist. Additionally, I led a campus tour of about 20 people, and although I didn’t ask, I’m pretty sure there were also Christians and Muslims in the group. All these new students, as well as the majority of international students at UNO, are in the same classes as the American students and are constantly creating international and inter-religious friendships.

The great thing about becoming friends with people from other cultures is that interfaith relations build easily and sometimes unintentionally. Religion might not be the first topic of discussion when meeting new people but as friendships grow, it always comes up somehow. Becoming friends with someone from a religion you are unfamiliar with helps change misconceptions about their religion. Each person acts as an ambassador for their religion and culture. These sorts of interactions provide a very relaxed, more personal way to accomplish interfaith relationships.

Outside of UNO, Project Interfaith helps create similar friendships within the Omaha community. What makes me love this organization so much is the variety in which we work towards understanding, respect and relationships among people of faiths, beliefs, and cultures. My first encounter with Project Interfaith was when I attended Dr. John Esposito’s lecture for Project Interfaith’s Community Conversation series nearly two years ago. I absolutely loved that program. I’m a little shy about talking to new people so I prefer the lecture setting but I know many people who would be grateful for a more laid back setting. Luckily, Project Interfaith has a wide variety of programs that make it easy for everyone to get involved and educated. For example, Project Interfaith presented a screening of the documentary, Taqwacore, last November which would appeal to the movie and music buffs. For the talkative types, the speed dialoguing event, “Face to Faith”, provided an opportunity for a more one-on-one experience.

However, one-on-one can be difficult sometimes if the person you’re talking with doesn’t agree with you. When asked what religion I follow, I usually reply “all and none” because I believe all the religions of the world are simply different paths to the same Divine. I don’t follow the dogma of any specific religion. Recently I had someone argue with me that I had to pick one religious tradition to follow. This person argued that I must choose one because religions contradict each other and that if I didn’t pick one, I must be an atheist. I’m so glad my conversation partner was not telling me which specific religion I had to follow but I couldn’t help but get a little frustrated with the lack of understanding. For people who are interested but wish to avoid such conversations, which can easily lead to heated arguments, I think Project Interfaith’s Community Mosaic Video Project (CMVP) is a great place to start. CMVP enables people to have that one-on-one experience but in the comfort of their own home. Viewers can get to know the interviewees through their videos and thereby learn more about their faiths. If you watch a video and feel a connection to what that person says, you are more likely to be receptive to learning more about them and their faith. Similar to my experience with international friendships, watching the CMVP videos humanizes religions. Religion becomes more than just a number of adherents and a list of beliefs when there is a face to go with it.

I really love that Project Interfaith makes these diverse opportunities available. Honestly I was a little surprised that such an organization existed in Nebraska. I’ve witnessed a lot of intolerance in the Midwest so I’m very glad Project Interfaith is here. I can’t think of a more perfect place for me to intern. One of my all-time favorite quotes is “Be the change you wish to see in the world” by Mahatma Gandhi and I feel like by working with Project Interfaith, I’m able to follow that advice!

Natalie Hatfield is a resource development intern at Project Interfaith. She is pursuing a major in Religious Studies and a minor in Anthropology at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Along with this internship, she is also working as the Director of International Student Services at UNO for 2011-2012. Her eventual career goals include achieving a PhD in Religious Studies or Anthropology and working for a museum, magazine or university. Natalie has been deeply interested in various religions and cultures since youth and is excited for the opportunity to work in this field with Project Interfaith. When she has free time, Natalie enjoys reading, studying international cultures and religion, traveling, and photography.

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