By: Kevin Garrity, HPU senior and native of Winston-Salem
I traveled to Atlanta with so many questions about what it means – and what it will mean – to be a white male Christian living in the 21st century.
What will it mean to live in a spiritually globalized world, which due to technology, is smaller than ever before?
What will it mean to be living around unprecedented amounts of interfaith interaction happening every day?
And, maybe the most pressing question, how do I learn to cooperate with and respect people whose beliefs are fundamentally different from mine?
Last fall, I joined two other students – a Muslim and a Christian – to create an interfaith group here at High Point University. We called it Interfaith United because we wanted to seek answers to these sort of questions.
When we created Interfaith United, we were inspired by the campaign of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), and three weekends ago, the IFYC invited us to attend an Interfaith Institute Leadership conference in Atlanta.
Once we got there, we noticed right away the weekend would be different from any of our interfaith meetings and conversations at school.
When I walked in the conference center, I saw college students from across the country. Some were white; some were black, many were brown. They wore hijabs; others yamakas. All of us, though, wore smiles of anticipation.
Our first session involved self-reflection on how we identify with religion, and afterward, I spent time sharing my faith identity and learning about the faith stories of others.
I spoke to atheists from the University of Illinois, Muslims from the University of North Florida, Jews from the University of Alabama, Catholics from the University of Dayton, Hindus, Protestant Christians, Secular Humanists and more.
My favorite session of the weekend involved an exercise called speed-faithing – a spin-off of speed-dating in which we rotated to different tables where we would discuss our religious identities.
As an evangelical Christian, preaching is fundamental to my faith, and consequently, it was challenging to engage other students who weren’t Christians.
I talked to an atheist, and for me, it was difficult to listen to him share his beliefs without trying to anticipate what I might say next in response to what he was sharing.
But after this exercise, I’ve come back to HPU with a renewed sense of what it means to be an evangelical Christian. For me, being a witness to the miracle I believe is Jesus Christ does not necessarily entail telling others how to believe.
Rather, I see witnessing as speaking for myself and saying what I believe and why I believe it. But I don’t believe it’s the only truth for everyone else. Rather, I believe it’s the only and ultimate truth for me.
From this belief, I believe I am obligated, enabled, blessed with the opportunity to share compassion with all — regardless of who they are.
Ironically, I learned this from talking with Muslims, and Jews, and Hindus, and in particular, the atheist from my speed-faithing exercise. He’s my new friend.
To me, this is the essence and necessity of interfaith relations: gaining a deeper understanding of my own faith through learning about the beliefs of others.
The conference’s final night affirmed that for me.
Eboo Patel, IFYC’s founder and president, delivered the keynote address, and in his speech, he defined the interfaith movement as diverse people coming together and bringing with them their fundamental religious differences.
But Patel said they come together not to change how they believe. They come together to find out if their differing faith traditions manifest themselves in a way that produces any similar values.
Amongst all people, he said, there is common ground.
This is not to say we all believe relatively in the same thing. Quite the opposite. In fact, I think we believe in very different things.
But, as an evangelical Christian, I am assured that an atheist, a Muslim, a Hindu and Jew can come together in their shared hope to help feed, clothe, and comfort those in need, those that I would call “the least of these.”
In his talk, Patel reminded me that the interfaith movement is not a new idea. He told the story that I have heard time and time again growing up.
That is the story of the March on Washington that took place 52 years ago when at least 250,000 activists marched for justice. But what I forget sometimes is how many activists from so many different worldviews came together to march with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
And right there with King was the Humanist Asa Philip Randolph, the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington, Father Patrick O’Boyle.
So, when it comes to living alongside people who hold onto different truths, I know my answer to this question: What is more important – our fundamental differences or our common ground?
It’s our common ground. That, I believe, is sacred.
And that is why I choose to help continue this thing we call interfaith.