Aaron Stauffer Associate Director of Religions for Peace USA

Raising Up Interfaith Leaders

The interfaith and ecumenical movements need to raise up young people who understand how to delve into differences of faith and belief while also focusing on grassroots justice work.

Too often, interfaith dialogue is approached through a single avenue between commonalities or differences. All the while, social activism is seen as a second step made possible only through commonalities between faiths.  In both of these models of dialogue differences are seen as impotent: nothing creative comes out of them.  The real challenge is to see difference in faith as sites of social activism. By seeing differences as sites of social activism (such as the current conversation from various faith communities regarding immigration reform and gay marriage) a deeper relational consciousness can arise. The relational conscious that we need today ought to be robust enough to fight the sense of complacency and nihilism that arises when people become simply “okay” with the way things are.  This is a task for theologians and activists – or theological activists and activist theologians.

The Student Christian Movement USA upholds the ability of individuals and communities to critically reason together and to engage in democratic exchange as important to sustaining a just and loving nation.

Building this “Beloved Community” is the challenge of all interfaith and ecumenical organizations working for peace and justice.  The Student Christian Movement USA (SCM) is a nascent movement of young people across the nation seeking to do both theology and activism – across and within these deep lines of theological and political difference.  Its National Leadership Conference (April 12-14 2013) will train and develop young people to be leaders in this work.  The SCM seeks to build a movement of young people who understand their theological commitments to themselves and more importantly to others. The SCM knows that any sustainable movement has to face these theological and political differences head-on to demonstrate how conflict can be theologically creative and constructive while also being a deep resource for justice. Theological differences can hold and bolster deep friendships between people of differing faiths.  Together, these people can work toward ending poverty while also understanding the religious “other.”

The challenge that faces us is not only increasing fragmentation of people of differing faith, but also declining collaboration.

Two years ago I sat in a small Mexican-American Presbyterian congregation in San Antonio, Texas.  I was meeting with a congregant to talk about her family scholarship fund that helped pay a student’s textbook fees at a local community college.  We had recently met with the local high school counselor and all the logistics were set in place.  As I chatted with the congregant, I could see that she was wary about the amount of work it might take to get this scholarship up and running.  I placed the papers aside and we began to talk about the importance of the scholarship, and what it might mean to a young person to have book fees taken care of.  Yet, in the middle of the conversation the congregant told me that she would rather not do the work necessary to sustain the scholarship, telling me that if other family members didn’t want to help with the work then she was fine with the way things were.

The congregant’s stress on keeping the scholarship up and running seemed to become complacency with the status quo.  The problem of fragmentation and lessening cooperation that justice-oriented people of faith face is in part resulting from the non-profit world being pitted against itself for funding. The hard work of interfaith activism takes place in an arena where we are at times fighting ourselves. This is both a reality of the non-profit world – and yet, is being overcome through collective impact initiatives. We do not have to accept traditional models of non-profit organizing. On the other hand, the difficulty of mobilizing and organizing people into relational models of community is not an easy task. This is a deeper reality about our national sense of community. But our isolation from each other and deeper alienation from our sense of community can be bridged only by opening ourselves again into deep relationships. This vulnerability requires faith differences in politics as part of the conversation.

Two weeks before the 2012 election I sat with an Upper West Side Lutheran congregation and spoke with them about the juncture between faith and politics. I used James Baldwin’s response to William Buckley as a starting point. Baldwin contested the reality of the American dream – primarily because he knew America as a promise un-kept, still waiting to be fulfilled.  This conversation of race and racism in politics is not so far away from the conversation of religious difference and politics.

In other writings, Baldwin speaks of a duty to achieving our country. He talks of those handful of committed folk working for King’s beloved community as “lovers,” but this is not a romantic, easy getaway.[2] It’s messy. At times we are unsure of the future, but we are committed to each other and the vision worked out between us.

Our duty is to name this those obstacles which keep us from accomplishing Baldwin’s call, overturn them, and create something new – a beloved community.  Baldwin’s words resonate with my upbringing – which grew out of Emersonian “Self-Reliance.” Individual self-determination is key in forming a faith identity that can be a bulwark for one’s activist commitments.

The SCM’s National Leadership Conference is a time when young people can begin to develop these faith sentiments and explore what it means to have such a democratic sensibility. It is a place where we foster democratic exchange, love justice and deepen our faiths.


[1] http://scmusa.org/2013leadershipconference

[2] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time 105