Four Crucial Ways College Students Teach Us How to be in Interfaith Conversation

The Memorial Chapel steeple at Emory & Henry College. For additional photos from our visit, see our Facebook page.

Fellow interfaith author and activist Susan Katz Miller recently reflected on her interfaith cross-country tour with her book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Family.

She writes,

“I feel like we are just at the beginning of a great, national conversation on religious flexibility and fluidity, religion and spirituality, the religious “nones” and religious institutions, and the role of inter-religious families in interfaith dialogue.”

Fred and I have just returned from a three-day stop on our Saffron Cross spring tour at Emory & Henry College near Abingdon, VA where we felt what Susan aptly describes as “the beginning of a great, national conversation.”

We were hosted by the Rev. Mary K. Briggs, Chaplain and Director of Emory & Henry’s Spiritual Life Program. Chaplain Briggs arranged for us to lecture at both the World Religions and Introduction to Christian Faith courses, as well as our meeting with the Campus Christian Fellowship and Association for Religious Diversity. To round out a wonderful visit, we were invited to offer one of Emory & Henry’s Lyceum lectures to a room full of students, faculty, staff, and community members.

Having just also just visited Wake Forest University, Fred and I consider it a treat to be invited to connect with the budding adults of America.

While they and their chaplains may think we’re bringing the Saffron Cross message to their communities, they are actually teaching us.

Here are four crucial ways college and university students teach us how to be in interfaith conversation:

1. They show up. While some may argue that college and university students are notorious for skipping out on commitments, Fred and I have found that there are always at least a handful of eager students ready to take advantage of the space for dialogue.

In contrast, working adults are guilty of allowing their busy schedules to keep them from being in conversation. Professionals can be so enthralled with work/life/children that it’s difficult to carve out time for community meals, volunteer work, and small group conversation. With every minute accounted for, spirituality and dialogue gets shoved to the bottom of list as I-don’t-have-time-for-navel-gazing, even when we know introspection helps us grow.

But college students take a shorter view; they determine that day (or that hour!) if they can afford the time and they show up (especially if there’s food!). Young adults don’t fret over a long-term commitment. Instead, their curiosity, coupled with a learning environment that is conducive to discussion, make them more open to attending this dinner, that lecture, or dropping in on that small group to see what it’s about. They’re simply in the mode of exploration.

Working adults (myself included) tend to be more closed off to such opportunities. While we may contest that a student’s lifestyle permits such participation, the reality of juggling academics, part-time jobs, and the balance of adolescence can be equally (or more) time consuming (as well as physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausting).

College students teach us the art of making time to be with one another.

2. They are not afraid to ask the tough questions. From sex to vegetarianism, birth control to engagement stories, children and everything in between, college students want to know how interfaith relationships work on-the-ground. No question is off the table. Any notion of not wanting to pose an inquiry that teeters on the edge of not-suited-for-public consumption is not on a student’s radar. They are unabashedly candid, living their lives with an openness (read: social media) that no other generation has seen. And this is a good thing.

How many times do we adults hesitate to pose the tough questions in our worshiping communities?

3. They are not shy about sharing their experiences. Equal to their rigorous line of questioning is their fervor for sharing stories. Consciously or unconsciously, students are willing to make themselves vulnerable.

It’s humbling to hear students share how they’ve encountered “the other.” Some have had encouraging experiences, while others have been devastated by a loss of friendships, roommates or boyfriends/girlfriends when drama and faith differences became too intense to make connections. But no matter the outcome, they tend to be open to processing their experiences in a group or on the individual level, which makes them stronger adults and more reflective humans.

4. They are willing to try interfaith/interdenominational dating. College students are not as hesitant about dating outside their denomination and/or religion as their parents would like to think. You name it, we’ve seen it. Christians dating Muslims, Muslims dating Evolutionists, Orthodox Jews dating Muslims, Hindus dating Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Methodists, Evangelical, Non-Denominational Christians dating Buddhists. Many college students have had some interfaith/interdenominational relationship experience by the time they’ve hit their second year at school.

Stepping outside their hometowns, home churches, and home circumstances to thrust themselves into the mix of another person’s backpack of experiences is beautiful. Romantic relationships help them learn quicker than any other version of life’s lessons, and they’re open to the journey.

They Get It

Often, after we’ve completed a speaking event at a college or university, Fred and I and turn to one and say, “they get it.” We leave campus feeling boosted and refreshed, enlightened by students’ vigor, questions and experiences—and we feel hopeful for the future of interfaith conversation.

After last Wednesday’s Lyceum lecture at Emory & Henry, a student named Devan Crabtree wrote a beautiful blog post on the experience of the lecture

Devan’s reflections reinforced this: college students teach us to show up, ask questions, share experiences, and to not be afraid of the “other.” They have accepted that navigating differences is a reality of living in the 21st century, where, thanks to technology, the world is much smaller than it used to be.

They realize that we are stronger together.

Om and amen!

Now Booking Events for Fall 2014!

We love, love, love being on campus with students and would take great joy in coming to see your community. If you’re interested in booking a campus event, please email me.

We’ve been honored to speak with the students, faculty and staff at: 

  • Vanderbilt University
  • Millsaps Colllege
  • Salem College
  • Meredith College
  • Wake Forest University
  • Emory & Henry College

We’ve just booked an engagement at Elon University for Monday, September 15th. Stay tuned for details!

Enjoyed this post? Please share your thoughts, questions, experiences, and comments below. 

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