I joined Interfaith Encounters as a part of an Alternative Break Program offered by the University of Maryland. My intention of joining this trip was to expand my knowledge about other religions because although I have been brought up in a very diverse and multi-religious society, my knowledge of faith traditions aside from my own was limited to what I was taught in school. During this trip, however, not only did I develop a deep understanding of six different religious worlds as I had hoped, but I also grew to appreciate the differences as well as the common spiritual foundation among those religions in addition to my own. Differences in our religions and practices are important and valuable as they give us a sense of identity, but they should not be barriers to our common work of transforming the world into a more just, compassionate place.
While our enlightening and rousing interfaith encounters progressed throughout the week, our service with Philadelphia Green at New Jerusalem Now (NJN) recovery community introduced us to Sister Margaret McKenna, who is a founding member of NJN. I was inspired by Sister Margaret’s story and her commitment to improving the lives of those who were addicted to drugs and/or alcohol and had nowhere else to turn. While helping NJN build planting beds and planted herbs, I, along with other trip participants, also listened to personal stories of some of the recovering drug addicts. It was amazing to listen to how, in the process of recovering from their addiction, these men and women transformed into strong individuals who valued life and took the initiative to make their neighborhood a better place to live. The people of this community were of different faiths, yet they lived in peace like a big, happy family and welcomed anyone who knocks on their door. It was in this community where I realized that learning about diverse religions is not the end in itself—at least not for me. When you are in a multi-religious community, stimulating an interfaith dialogue that expresses mutual respect and understanding is crucial in building solidarity.
After this trip, I have realized that all religions share a common ground for peace, service, compassion and love. It is for and because of this common ground that I have begun to value religious pluralism as a step beyond religious tolerance. Though tolerance is a necessary step towards pluralism, it is not the end in itself given a world of religious differences; “tolerance” by itself still leaves room for judgments, stereotypes, and divisions.
Seeing Rev. Nicole, Sister Maria, Abby, Margie and Danielle from the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia working towards cultivating and sustaining social unity through interfaith education, I am inspired to follow in their steps. I hope that I can take what I have learned from this trip and apply it to those communities of which I am and will be a part. I further hope to join those I met from the Interfaith Center and New Jerusalem Now in their efforts of creating a culture of peace.
Felt Like Coming Home
Student Team Leader
Stepping into the church felt like coming home. It had been a few months since I’d made it to a service, and Lent had just started. The dimmed lights, candles, and beautiful artwork were soothing at first, but then I started to feel the panic I’d felt all week creeping back. Everyone was listening to the priest’s presentation and all I could think was that they were bored. To me, everything being said made perfect sense. I’d grown up in the faith, built my worldview around the tenets and teachings. The rest of the group- what would they think? My Greek Orthodox faith, so rooted in tradition, must appear backward to other faiths. We had ooh-ed and ahh-ed over other, more interesting traditions all week- mine couldn’t possibly produce such awe. When we’d visited other faiths, I had always put their teachings into perspective by drawing parallels with my own faith. Protestantism was the closest in teachings, while Judeo-Christian roots made our synagogue trip feel like home.
Buddhism’s ideal of inner purification was very familiar. The Baha’í and Muslim faiths’ tenets all felt similar to my own. I was afraid that the easy connections I’d forged would not come so easily to others who had never experienced my faith. And yet, after a service in a language none of them knew, my friends only praised the beauty of the church, the service, everything. Their questions and interest made me feel proud and reconnected me with everything I’d ever loved about being Orthodox.
I came to realize throughout the week that the only thing that separates different faiths is fear: fear of being judged, and fear of the unknown. When we try to connect with different faiths, we are afraid of our own being seen as inferior- when we view other traditions, we are afraid of what we may see. That is why programs like the Interfaith Center’s Alternative Break Program are so important. If we, the youth of today, the leaders of tomorrow, can learn to stop being fearful and judgmental now, we won’t be influenced by that later. We won’t pass those traits on to our children. We can stop interfaith hatred now, in our generation, if we share these experiences. Pride for our own traditions and faiths doesn’t have to mean that every other faith is inferior, because seeing what is unique to our faith in comparison to others can often remind us of what we love in our own path to enlightenment.
How This Trip Affected Us
Talia Stein & Kim Brown
Alternative Break Participants
University of Maryland
The most significant thing that we learned from our AB Interfaith trip is the importance of listening to people’s stories in order to understand their backgrounds and how they affect their beliefs and actions. This doesn’t only apply to religion; it applies to political affiliations, social justice issues and different lifestyles—to name a few. For example, before the trip, we remember finding it hard to be open-minded and accepting to people who are more close-minded or intolerant of people’s differences. Although it isn’t always easy, we have come to see that it is important to work on ourselves to be more accepting of many different types of people; for us, that means respecting even those who we may see as “close-minded”.
Once we listened to others’ stories and understood where they were coming from, it became easier to appreciate different people and their perspectives. We also realized that fear is a legitimate and real factor in decision-making, especially in religion. Hearing people explain why they feel strongly about certain issues has helped us become less judgmental when we meet people with different affiliations than our own.
Overall, after encountering the different faith communities, including various perspectives from our own traditions, we felt much more at peace with our own faiths. We realized that our religions are less rigid than we felt beforehand and that there really is a place for everyone within any faith community in which he or she wants to belong. We were particularly moved by our conversation with members of the Yes! Coalition.
Though each member of our group went on his or her own spiritual journey throughout the week, we really felt that all of us were basically on the same page. We were all enthusiastic about listening to each other’s struggles and realizations about their faith throughout the week and never felt any feelings of judgment or tension even though people came to different conclusions. Every member of our group that we talked to truly felt that this trip was a life-changing experience for them.
Alternative Break Participant
Bryn Mawr College
Who ever thought one of the best weeks of my life would involve spending several nights in a Catholic parish house in Philadelphia with six other Bryn Mawr and Haverford College students and several chaperones? During the recent Interfaith Alternative Spring Break program, I reached new levels of understanding in my knowledge of various faith traditions as well as in my own spirituality. During the week our extremely diverse group of students and chaperones visited various faith institutions and worked with Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based organization that aims to cease gun violence and illegal gun sales. Exploration of different houses of worship coupled with participation in vigils and protests with Heeding God’s Call made for an enlightening and mind-blowing experience, one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
What really stood out to our group about visiting the different faith communities was the common thread of human values and spirituality found in all. Although we visited a Conservative Jewish synagogue, Baptist church, mosque, Hare Krishna temple, Catholic church, Buddhist temple, and Quaker meeting house, all of which had different practices, beliefs, and traditions, our group ultimately realized the fundamental similarities underlying people’s connection to God. For me, being exposed to such diverse rituals and practices gave me a greater appreciation of people who are different from me, teaching me how to nurture relationships with others that transcend mere tolerance. Working with Heeding God’s Call added a profound layer to the overall experience because it demonstrated the power of interfaith community in action. While marching to a murder site in West Philly and praying together with an exceedingly diverse group of participants, I truly felt like I was part of something greater than myself. As one of the leaders of Heeding God’s Call pointed out, although the murder site was once not holy, praying there together as a group with faith and compassion now rendered the spot holy. It was a deeply powerful and moving experience.
I can compare what I learned during the Alternative Spring Break trip with the “The Human Machine” game that we played during one of our workshops with Reverend Josh Blakesley. In the game, one person begins by creating his or her own musical noise and action. As the person repeats the noise and gesture, others join in one-by-one with their own original moves and sounds. This continues so that the whole “Human Machine” that is created works together in harmony. Josh explained that the purpose of the game was to show us that each person has a place in the diversity of the world, and although we must work together effectively with those around us, we also must be confident in upholding the unique role that we play. During the trip I learned how to interact and empathize with people from different faith backgrounds; at the same time, I was granted the opportunity to reflect on my own spiritual identity and connection to the universe. I would highly recommend this program to anyone interested in faith, religion, spirituality, and/or just people in general. I am so grateful for this wonderful experience as well as the amazing group of highly diverse, open-minded, curious, intelligent, and kind students and chaperones who truly enriched my life!
Interfaith: What It Means
Alternative Break Participant
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
It is finally sinking in that I am no longer on this trip and it is expected that I will go back to classes tomorrow bright and early and act like nothing happened. This will be extremely hard to do, and is unfair. I have learned so much on this trip and need more time to process everything I have experienced.
If I had to sum up my experience in a few sentences, I would say that this trip has been challenging. But because it has been challenging – it has consequently been rewarding. I had no idea what to expect on this trip; I knew not to expect a vacation on the beach – but I wasn’t expecting the physical and emotional work that it was.
What I have learned is that interfaith work means patience, understanding, and communication on a level above and beyond everyday communication. It means overcoming differences and getting at the true core of human experience.
After visiting a Gurdwara, an Episcopal church, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a mosque, a Baha’i place of worship, a synagogue, and a Quaker presentation, I have come to the realization that while all religions are not the same, there are more similarities between them than there are differences.
This is a fact that should be remembered by all, especially in those cases where it is forgotten and hatred or war is bred by differing beliefs. Down deep, we really aren’t that different after all.
As an Atheist, this trip has been extremely challenging for me: because each and every encounter challenged my beliefs. I was led on a wild, winding road where I was questioning myself at every turn. This trip definitely gave me a lot of think about, things I will be thinking about for a very, very long time.
It is hard to put this experience into words.
As I stated earlier, it is going to be hard going back to normal, everyday life. I want to thank everyone who has helped make this experience amazing, and for sharing their stories. Whatever differences we have, we truly are better together. Thanks, everyone.