Moving Into Interfaith Leadership

978-080703362-3I recently read Eboo Patel’s new book, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer (2016). I’d recommend it to any student looking to go into the field of interfaith work, or any minister or religious leader trying to find ways to reorient their spiritual work in this changing religious landscape. Patel’s vision is timely and much-needed. Given the growing the misunderstandings between religious groups, the trend towards increased fundamentalism, and the reality that Christendom in the West is crumbling (or already has crumbled?), we need new ways of thinking and practicing religious life together. Patel’s book is wonderfully practical, and backed up with theory throughout that will provide plenty of background to help formulate the vision. As the head of campus ministry at the Quaker college where I work, it is clear to me that we too need a new vision for how divergent religious groups can not just coexist, but actually learn from one another, grow in partnerships, and work towards shared goals and how we help foster in our students this kind of leadership. What does it mean to have a Quaker heritage, while also having a very religiously diverse student body? What does it mean to be a person of faith in these times, especially a person of faith from a nondominant religious tradition?

I read the book with personal and professional interest.

One thing the book really helped me with is that I came to realize I can identify myself as an interfaith leader and that I do (and want to do more) interfaith work.

While reading Interfaith Leadership, I began to rethink the narrative of my own faith formation and became more comfortable with the idea of being an interfaith leader.

Looking back, this evolution has come in phases.

In the first phase, I was fixed very much within a narrow understanding and practice of Christianity. In this stage, I was not only not interested in other religious (and non-religious) expressions, I was not even aware of them. The center of gravity was very much myself, what I was being taught, and what I believe. I had little interest in other perspectives or adapting in a way that would allow my faith to change.

In the second phase, I began to value different Christian traditions. I began to see the importance of denominations, and the various “streams of living water,” that Richard Foster refers to. A subset of this for me was coming to understand and value the various sub-streams within the Quaker tradition, of which I am a part. In large part, this experience, which was initated largely through friendships I developed through my blog in 2004–2005, led me to my work on the subject of “convergent” Friends and Quaker renewal. This work has been very much about bringing people together, learning to speak across differences, value those differences and build upon the best parts of our tradition, while allowing for — and even encouraging — apdatations to occur.

A third phase I see in my own evolution around interfaith work began while I was pastoring a Quaker meeting in Camas, WA. There I made friends with an Episcopal priest who helped me connect with the richness of her tradition. Then I found that the peers I most enjoyed being around and those who I felt I could learn the most from were a part of the a city-wide interfaith group. That group not only connected me to Episcopals, Reformed Jews, Muslims, Catholics, hospital chaplains, and more, but it was also a very active group. We showed up places together to offer support during labor disputes, we wrote letters together when a mosque was burned or other hate crimes happened, we hosted gatherings with our various faith communities where diverse religious folks shared a meal and enjoyed conversations together. These experiences deeply enriched my personal faith and the experience of faith in our Quaker meeting, and yet it never occurred to me that I had shifted into being an “interfaith leader.”

It wasn’t until I read Patel’s words about what makes for an interfaith leader that it struck me:

“Interfaith Leaders are people who have the ability to lead individuals and communities that orient around religious differently toward understanding and cooperation (4).

This inspires me.

Where I am now in my identity and formation as a Quaker and interfaith leader is that I am interested in strengthening people’s connection to God, in whatever way, tradition or practice this takes place. I believe that there are two basic kinds of religion in the world, one that is used to create imperial rule and one that is used to subvert empire and create the beloved community. Regardless of what faith tradition someone is in, I believe these two poles persist. I want to do whatever I can to support the formation, development, and strengthening of that latter while working to uproot and dismantle the former. I think that religious traditions can and should be an absolute force for the good, compassion, peace and justice, and love in the world.

And given the state we are in today, we must find ways to work together to make this happen.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.