My position as graduate assistant of diversity education at East Tennessee State University has opened up doors to new opportunities and connections with those different from me.
It is a true gift to be provided the resources and support of staff and faculty to participate in ETSU’s annual “Civility Week.”
“Civility Week” encourages students to reconcile and embrace differences of race, gender, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, religion and more.
Through activities, speaker events and panels, students are challenged to strive for unity and embrace civil discourse about our world’s problems.
Though it was hard to top meeting and speaking to Van Jones, CNN anchor, author, and social justice advocate, behind the scenes of his scheduled talk for “Civility Week,” the true highlight for me was co-moderating the student interfaith panel with Jennifer Adler of ETSU’s religious studies program.
The interfaith student panel entitled, “A Higher Purpose: A Dialogue on Religious and Spiritual Identity and the College Experience,” focused on six undergraduate students who identified in a variety of ways.
The panel included a Deist, a Moldovian Pentecostal, a Muslim, a non-denominational Christian, a Hindu and a follower of Jesus Christ.
The late-March event was a big success. I am so proud of these students for talking about their faith publicly and for finding commonalities in each of their practices and experiences. They truly embodied the spirit of “Civility Week.”
The planning of the panel had me thinking about my own lack of experience with interfaith dialogue prior to graduate school. The only episode of note was not exactly a positive example.
One fateful Wednesday night several years ago, the church I attended played the EthicsDaily.com documentary about interfaith relationships between Baptists and Muslims entitled “Different Books, Common Word.”
This documentary was fascinating to me because it was one of the first times that I’d ever been exposed to a new line of thinking about religion that came directly from my church.
But what stood out to me more than anything else was the immediate anger emanating from one of the older church members who felt threatened. The man was so provoked by the content that he raised his voice and expressed his outright disgust for interfaith relationships in the middle of our group discussion.
I recall feeling my own anger bubble to the surface at this ugly display of intolerance.
I grew up in a predominantly white city with most of the population identifying as Christian. I was surrounded by like-minded people, and yet I felt that something was not right with his behavior.
Questions began to swirl around in my head (Warning: These questions may step on some toes.).
Why are Christians so afraid of other faiths? Why do we refuse to validate other practices? Why do we act like we are superior to others?
Where in Jesus’ teachings does it say to stereotype groups or harbor ill will toward them? Why do we make it our job to judge people? Why are we so angry all the time?
These were big questions I was asking my teenage self.
Since then, I’ve been extremely suspicious of Christians who promote Christian nationalism, ignore separation of church and state, and say that we need “prayer in schools.”
Because we can imagine what kind of prayer they are advocating for, right? And it is probably not the five daily prayers of the Muslim faith or the passing around of Pagan prayer beads.
For me, it is safe to assume that some Christians have a serious problem with confronting their biases against various belief systems, and some even possess a disdain for certain Christian denominations.
What I have learned from organizing this year’s interfaith panel is that openness to learning about other religions is part of cultivating a deeper appreciation for one’s own faith traditions.
During Civility Week, I watched these students speak joyfully about their favorite practices: prayer, fasting, wearing religious garb and reading their sacred texts. They also bravely shared the ways that they have made their faith their own and how they have felt empowered by their beliefs while in college.
Notably, some also shared how they have abandoned and admonished certain beliefs in their religion like female submission, fear of education, bigotry and extremism.
At no point did anyone feel threatened or express anger toward a specific practice or belief system. I hope that those in attendance left with new knowledge, new perspectives and a revitalization of their own faith.
In writing this article, I am not asking Christians to abandon or compromise belief in Jesus Christ or any of the other tenants that are held dear.
Instead, I am proposing that we try to understand others through education, reading and conversing in a sincere attempt to prevent us from harboring unnecessary anger or judgment.
The world is big enough for all of us to share.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a new, ongoing series at Good Faith Media. If you would like to contribute to the series, please submit your column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Creative coordinator for publishing and marketing at Good Faith Media. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from Missouri Southern State University and her Associate of Arts degree from Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Missouri. Chisholm was an Ernest C. Hynds Jr. intern with GFM for the summer of 2021.