From you I receive. To you I give. Together we share. And by this, we live. This familiar text reverberated around the lecture theatre in George Washington University where the participants of Reimagining Interfaith had gathered for the opening ceremony of the conference. Without any introduction, members of Sanctuaries DC, an inspirational artistic collective on the cutting edge of justice work, opened the space. They shared spoken word poetry, music, and live painting which helped prepare our hearts and minds for the three and a half day journey we would be embarking on together. On July 29th, attendees hailing from all corners of the globe - Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, India, Pakistan, England, Morocco, Japan, across the US, and more - sat in the anticipation of how we could collectively reimagine what the interfaith movement looked, sounded, and felt like. Or, as we were challenged that same evening by Rev. Jennifer Bailey, reimagine whether the interfaith movement was truly a movement at all. She explained that movements require a beginning, middle, and end, and our work was without conclusion. Rather, she called us to question if, instead, we might conceive of interfaith work as “a way to do community.”
Unitarian Universalists are no strangers to developing new and beautiful ways to do community, a strength I believe we bring to engaging in interfaith work and dialogue. I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer number of UUs present at the conference; a quantity, I’m sure, was related to the UUA’s fairly sizable role in the planning and execution of the gathering. Either way, it was splendid to be able to connect with so many UUs and to swap perspectives on the numerous benefits and possible challenges our faith tradition brings with us to the interfaith table.
We were kept incredibly busy between five program tracks covering topics from recognizing privilege to community organizing. But the programming itself was also enriched by other conference activities including circle groups which provided a consistent small cohort to check in with throughout the week as well as morning and evening spiritual practices to ground us in the sometimes painful, but ultimately satisfying work of change and growth. The spiritual practices bookending each day were beautiful ways to lead by example in crafting truly interfaith experiences of worship. A particularly memorable one combined music, scripture, and chanting drawn from Shinto, Muslim, Christian, and UU flavors into a harmonious blend maintaining the integrity of each component while also fitting perfectly with those that were radically different.
Historically and even today, interfaith work is frequently the name associated with an overgeneralized message of oneness, love, and peace without addressing the underlying differences in our religious or spiritual traditions inspiring us to engage in the work in the first place. And prior to this conference, I was deeply frustrated by continuing to come up against this kumbaya mentality time and time again. But what I learned in my several days with the incredibly honest, vulnerable, and genuine people I met in D.C., is that interfaith work, like all justice work, is deeply contextual. In some communities, simply having people with different faith backgrounds share a meal is a feat worthy of celebration. For others, the challenge is to have deep conversation in a respectful and curious way. Sometimes it becomes difficult to move from dialogue to collective action and harder still to find projects and causes on which all participants can agree. Sometimes the real trial is overcoming complacency and truly engaging with the difficult work of inclusion. Wherever a community is struggling, interfaith networks like the one formed at Reimagining Interfaith exist to share best practices, to swap resources, and to renew our spirits to return to our communities refreshed and ready to dive back in and make substantive and positive change.
In a conversation with a fellow UU, she said of her time at seminary that it felt like “a warm hug of a place” and that phrase perfectly captured how Reimagining Interfaith felt to me. There were certainly plenty of moments in which the growing pains of our community could be staunchly felt and were profoundly frustrating. This was particularly true when the programming turned out very U.S.-centric or when I overheard racist comments by those who weren’t even aware that their language had been hurtful. However, there were also moments that filled me to the brim with hopefulness, when I had the humbling privilege to watch transformation occur. Throughout the conference, I continued to see more and more attendees add their pronouns to the white spaces on their nametags. I had so many wonderful conversations with people who were beyond open to learning and to making space for marginalized voices. The international interfaith network of humans pouring our souls together to determine how best improve our “way of doing community” held us in a space safe enough to make mistakes, to try new things, to open ourselves up to the understanding that we alone do not know everything. But that by asking and by truly listening to what others tell us, that we will be one step closer.
On one evening during the conference, over fifty attendees participated in a public witness event at Lafayette Park outside the White House. Unitarian Universalist Association President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray joined several other faith leaders in sharing words of frustration at the injustices surrounding us in the US and around the world and a hope for a co-created future of resilience, connectedness, and mutual respect. Marching through the streets of Washington, our extraordinarily multicultural and multi-religious group sang the protest song “We Shall Overcome” and chanted “This is what community looks like.” May Unitarian Universalists and all those engaged in interfaith work continue to push ourselves to “do community better” and put our reimaginings into action.