The way religion is portrayed today, one could think that it is the source of much of the world’s violence. While religious division continue into 2014, interfaith groups at Grand Valley State University are gathering to address problems facing religion by confronting religious violence and intolerance as a part of a national movement.
Better Together Day, an interfaith dialogue will take place April 10 in Multipurpose room 030 of the Mary Idema Pew Library from 7:30 to 10 p.m. It is sponsored by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, a Grand Rapids community-based nonprofit that promotes religious understanding and respect on GVSU’s campus by connecting interfaith activities to the campus community.
The event is also organized by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based nonprofit that mobilizes college students nationwide to become interfaith activists in their own college communities.
Students who wish to show support for Better Together Day are encouraged to wear something blue, since it is the emblem that IFYC has adopted for its interfaith message that it is better for people of all faith backgrounds to work together than to stand alone.
“Being blue is a small action that makes a big statement: we’re all better when people from different traditions and backgrounds work together,” IFYC states on their website.
That statement seems to have worked. In its first year, 1,300 students from colleges and universities nationwide took IFYC’s pledge to change the narrative that different religious and non-religious traditions are doomed to fight.
“They’re the force behind the movement,” said Katie Gordon, Kaufman Interfaith Institute program manager. “Anyone who is frustrated by how religion has become a divisive thing in our culture I think would be really interested in this because the whole idea behind Better Together Day, and interfaith in general, is that religion and our own faith, spirituality or lack thereof should be used as a tool for good rather than a tool to divide us.”
Other than engaging in cross-cultural dialogue, IFYC and the Kaufman Institute hope to inspire participants to do something with the knowledge they gain at the dialogue.
“The hope is students and faculty will come to the presentation and learn about what these things can do and actually follow up the next day and put their thoughts to action,” Gordon said.
One way that the interfaith groups on the GV campus hope to exercise this is by participating in the Relay for Life team sponsored by Wesley Fellowship, Hillel and the Muslim Student Association called “Faiths United for a Cure,” which takes place April 11.
“This is still the beginning of this movement and every year it seems to be getting bigger and expanding to more campuses and more students and faculty across the country,” Gordon said. “It’s exciting that Grand Valley is getting in and doing something substantial and significant just at the beginning of this moment for interfaith cooperation on campus.”
Though both groups insist on trying to end religious violence and intolerance, there has not been a specific incident of religious insensitivity to incite such an event, but that doesn’t mean that religious insensitivity doesn’t exist at GVSU.
“Even though we haven’t experienced some incident on campus of religious intolerance or discrimination, it’s something that we see in our country and our world a lot,” Gordon said. “It’s important to have this conversation because after students move on from Grand Valley and move into larger cities or other parts of the world, those kinds of conversation are going to be going on.”
Gordon said that talking about religion can make some people feel uncomfortable about their own belief systems, but it’s an important topic for students to discuss.
“Interfaith dialogue isn’t about questioning your own faith, its learning about someone else’s,” she said. “If that helps you grow in your own faith that’s great, but it’s really about breaking down barriers between people who are different than one another.”
The goal of Better Together Day is to try and take one step closer toward the goal of pluralism, but there seems to be some confusion between what IFYC and other interfaith groups mean when they say about it. The term can become confused with secularism, which is the movement away from religious doctrine. Both seem to have similar goals, but that is not entirely the case.
“The distinction we draw is that diversity exists, that’s a given,” Gordon said. “But if you take diversity to the next step that would be pluralism. It’s engaging that diversity and allowing that diversity to be all it can be.”
Still, the challenges of creating interfaith dialogue may seem daunting enough to raise a question. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to do away with religious accommodation and adopt a secular stance on campus instead? But Gordon demonstrates how pluralism might be seen as preferable to secularization.
“I think secularism kind of takes religion out of the picture and it tries to put everyone on a neutral footing,” Gordon said. “Whereas pluralism lets people embrace where they come from and lets that add to this mosaic of culture.”
Using a euphemism from Cambridge University interfaith organizer Dr. David Ford, who recently visited Grand Rapids, Gordon said “neutrality is so 20th century. Everyone comes from somewhere, so you might as well embrace that and use it.”
Whether it’s present in the media, politics or foreign affairs, it seems that religion is not becoming more obscure, but defining a new cultural framework.
“We’ve seen religion become resurgent in political affairs,” Gordon said. “Whether it be in presidential elections or foreign policy, people are realizing that religion really matters not only in their lives, but political life as well. So, we’re not moving away from secularism, but toward this consciousness that religion matters and we should talk about it and it should be a national conversation.”
Despite the event’s stress on religious diversity, Gordon also said that the cooperation of secular, agnostic and atheist students is a valuable contribution to the dialogue.
“It’s important to emphasize that non-religious people come from somewhere too,” she said. “They have their own ideas about their own views of truth in the world. There’s a huge complexity to non-religious peoples’ belief systems that needs to be a part of this interfaith conversation.”
Students interested in the Better Together Day are encouraged to visit the Kaufman Interfaith website and sign a pledge for the event.
For more information on Better Together Day and upcoming events sponsored by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, visit www.gvsu.edu/interfaith/ or www.ifyc.org/beblue.