Learning and Serving through Interfaith Work

The following is derived from a blog post I wrote for my CFV internship this past winter-spring. The original is posted on their website, here.

This past Jan-April I had the pleasure to serve as the Interfaith Intern for the Center for Faith and Vocation at Butler University. For me this has meant a lot of things; for one, it means that I got a position I really wanted. Ever since I was really young I’ve wanted to be involved in religious activity in some way and while that may have waned to an extent during my time at Butler, during my senior year it became an extremely important part of my life and my academic study.

When I was five my biological father, Bryant, had instilled a religious interest in me – one that at the time had me thinking about the church I would one day pastor. Over time this fervor waxed and waned as I went through periods of not caring about god, to praying every day several times a day. During this time though I never really doubted that I would someday become a pastor, even if it meant sidelining my passion for acting. Fast-forward to 2012 and I’m entering University to study theatre with a post-grad plan to attend a conservative baptist seminary that promised to build upon my theatrical education. Everything seemed set.

In the time between those first few weeks of undergrad and my last few weeks, things changed drastically. I came out as trans in 2014 and began pursuing feminist religion as a way of continuing my love of the divine without sacrificing my trans identity. This massive shift knocked off course all my plans. I no longer wanted to do any of the post-grad things I had been talking about for years, but it wasn’t until my last semester that the work I put into the CFV internship helped reorient my course.

I believe learned more about myself in my final two semesters at BU, than in the previous two years and I attribute that to the serious reflection required by this internship. Unlike my other campus jobs, this wasn’t something I could just glide through – this was an experience that forced me to consider not only what I want to do, but how I want to do it and how I want to be perceived while doing it.

One of the first things our group of interns discussed was the meaning of a calling and how that relates to one’s vocation. What stood out to me was something said by Frederick Buechner, “The place [you are called] to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I see this as framing meaning in life outside ambition and placing it in calling; instead of sacrificing some part of who you are to achieve a goal, no matter how altruistic, one is fulfilled by the simple act of doing the work. Beyond survival work this understanding of calling allows one privileged enough to find a human and spiritual meaning in a world centered solely on material meaning.

For myself, I began reflecting on my passions, where my deep interests lay, to come to terms with the direction I wanted to take next. Did I want more work like the internship?
At least part of me said yes, I have a strong passion for feminist theilogical work, and the world absolutely needs more people who are willing to speak with a loud voice and let people know that there is a message in religion other than exclusion and hatred. However, after wrestling with the thought of how I could continue studying religion post-graduation, I realized that theilogical work alone is not my deep gladness. I need the art aspect, and thankfully they are not mutually exclusive.

Art, specifically music and theatre, have been the other mainstay in my life, having played piano since I was 3 and been in the theatre since I was 11. Feminist Theilogical work is necessary to save the earth, but if it remains penned up in the ivory tower of academia and avoids getting involved in the world, it becomes in the words of the first century christian Paul, nothing more than “a clanging symbol” of no use to anybody.

For several years much of the theatre I was involved in was explicitly Christian, the motto of the troupe was “making the bible come alive.” This is not the synthesis of theilogical work and art that I seek. I seek something deeply rooted in critical consciousness, that doesn’t deliver trite stories heavy on the moralism, but forces people out of their lethargy into an awakened state. I want to use theatre as the medium of the message because art reaches deeper than intellectual knowing, into a place of revelatory or mystical knowing. I want theatre that challenges the ego, and without this internship, I doubt I would know that or that feminist theilogocal work is inseparable from my calling as a theatre artist. While this may change, the worst thing one can do is try and box yourself into some idea of “what one should do.”

Working as the Interfaith Intern also helped shine a light on elements of Butler’s campus and interfaith work, most of which I was not aware. One of the most outstanding personal and professional connections I made was with the Muslim Student Alliance. Over the course of the semester I was lucky enough to be able to go on several outings with members of MSA, each one providing opportunities for dialogue and personal growth. Personally, there is nothing quite like speaking with Muslims to learn about how they understand their faith; of course this applies across the board, religion is often a highly personal thing and what may be most important to one person will be completely irrelevant to the next.

One of my goals for this internship was to foster community dialogue, so as part of that I  organized two outings to local congregations: one Jewish, one Muslim – with the specific intent of creating a space for interfaith dialogue between those of faith difference. Both of these excursions were incredibly educational. At the Reform synagogue Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, I learned that many Jewish congregations pray over bread and wine at the end of Shabbat service, followed by the sharing of a meal – I couldn’t help but make the connection to the similar Christian ceremony known as communion or eucharist.

The mosque visit I organized was to Nur-Allah Islamic Center, which has been in existence in various forms for around fifty years. Nur-Allah has its origins in the Nation of Islam (which taught that God was Black and the white man was the devil) and has since moved towards a more orthodox and more universal vision of Islam centered around the Unity of God and the “brotherhood of man” (though I myself prefer terms like “kinship of humanity” or “beloved community”.) Their Imam, Michael Saahir, was extremely personable and very pleased to be sharing his faith with us. He spoke of the Prophets Jesus and Muhammad and the unity of their message –  and how it relates to recognizing the truth in all religions. As someone who identifies intermittently as Christian  I appreciated the parallels the sermon drew between Christianity & Islam.

The variety of experiences the internship brought me have helped make me more aware of the issues this world faces. With the work I did connecting to Muslim & Jewish communities I saw first hand the lack of education about these cultures many of my peers received.  This cultural ignorance is one of the things I would like to help correct with my work going forward, looking around one can see that it has become a barrier to the unity of people who otherwise seek many of the same things.

I now believe that their is no better medicine for this broken world than one that brings people together for a common purpose, that theatre and religion are two ways I have been gifted in helping– “to proclaim good news to the poor, bring healing to the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1)

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