Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Breaking Walls & Building Trust

By our Resource Development Intern, Kristi Grieder

I am excited to be a Resource Development Intern at Project Interfaith for the same reason I studied religion in college. I am fascinated with people and deeply want to understand what values, beliefs, and passions shape people’s lives. While I enjoyed studying various religious traditions and systems of thought in my degree, I am most interested the complex and nuanced identities of individuals.
What experiences have shaped your beliefs about life? What people or places have profoundly impacted you? What practices are meaningful to you? What excites you? What keeps you up at night?

These are a taste of the questions that surfaced while participating in my first interfaith dialogue group in college. Our group was not interested in comparing and contrasting religions. Instead, we spoke in first person about our beliefs, doubts, struggles, and joys. We wondered out loud about the world. We listened. We did not respond with advice or awkward silence. We did not tune out when confronted with difference. We were taught to be present to one another and ask open and honest questions—questions that continue to challenge and cultivate my spiritual identity even years later.
As our group met over many weeks we also started to see the walls come down. For many, this invisible wall was not intentional or personal. It was not meant to exclude others, but had been built by the fear of being misunderstood. The walls not only blocked a connection with others, but it kept us withdrawn, afraid, and uncomfortable with sharing who we are.

Maybe a brick was laid each time someone made fun of our ideas or beliefs. Maybe a brick was laid with each blank stare. Maybe a brick was laid when someone tried to convert us. Maybe the wall was built by the despair from experiencing or witnessing violence, hate, and religious conflict in the world. Regardless of the cause, it slowly and stealthily walled us in and others out. But the genuine curiosity, rules of respect, and space for reflection that are essential to interfaith dialogue started to knock down the walls. Trust grew and real relationship became possible.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I most recently interned at Well Within, a nonprofit holistic health resource center in Woodbury, MN. The aim of Well Within is to nurture the mind, body, and spirit of those who enter its doors. Oftentimes, the guests are suffering from mental illness, cancer, grief, or chronic pain. When dealing with severe health issues, it can be easy to focus on the mind and body because these things are demanding the attention of the person.  One could show up for a therapy session or yoga class to obtain the free or low-cost service they need. But during my time at Well Within, I sensed a longing for something deeper. I often stopped my tasks for a woman who needed a listening ear. I saw frequent guests return week after week, despite transportation obstacles, to be in a small group. Overall, I observed a deep hunger for a sense of community. Many guests needed a safe place to explore their spiritual identity and process life’s mysteries and challenges. They needed a place where they could be known by name, let down their guard, breathe deeply, and fear no judgment. While this instance is not an explicit interfaith group, this experience reinforced the importance of creating and sustaining places of trust.

This is why I am excited to be part of Project Interfaith. I see the possibility of dialogue and relationship through their programs, products, and services. I am drawn to this place where I am respected as a whole person—mind, body, and spirit. More importantly, I am eager to develop resources to help others create spaces for sharing in their communities. Not only is this task essential to Project Interfaith’s mission, but it also promotes healing in individuals and communities in ways unseen. The invisible walls can be replaced with postures of openness, acceptance, and respect. Without this commitment, how can a person who is diagnosed with cancer navigate treatment when her personal beliefs are not respected by her health care providers? How can a mother who lost her daughter heal without wrestling with her deepest questions about life and death? How can a college student learn to critically examine diverse perspectives when his own point of view is not welcomed? How can co-workers resolve a conflict without learning to listen to the other person’s opinion?

I admire the way Project Interfaith equips communities, workplaces, schools, and healthcare providers with the skills to navigate religious and cultural diversity. It is a great privilege for me to contribute to this organization by developing resources that challenge assumptions and barriers, and instead, grow understanding, respect, and relationship among people of all faith, beliefs, and cultures.

Kristi Grieder is Project Interfaith’s Resource Development Intern. Kristi obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where she explored her spiritual and cultural identity through studies in religion, sociology, and writing.

Kristi is excited to share her longstanding passions for religion, research and justice with Project Interfaith.  Her engagement with the interfaith movement began in college as a participant of a dialogue group. In past volunteer and work experiences, Kristi has developed resources on environmental stewardship for diverse faith communities, taught English to refugees in Malta, connected college students to resources as a Resident Assistant, mentored youth, and conducted research and writing on various socio-economic and environmental issues. Most recently, she worked for a non-profit holistic health resource center that serves people in need. Kristi’s long-term plans are to pursue a Masters of Divinity degree. She believes this internship will not only diversify her skill set in the nonprofit sector, but also deepen her capacity as a compassionate and creative leader in an increasingly diverse society.

In her free time, Kristi enjoys board games, reading and writing, being outdoors, and one-to-one conversations. Originally from Minnesota, Kristi is a new resident of Omaha. She looks forward to getting to know the area and empowering others as a Resource Development Intern for Project Interfaith.

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