“Studies in psychoanalysis tell us that man is on a constant journey. Through our struggles, we gain the capacity to understand that we are not competing with one another, but we are surviving with one another. This consciousness leads us to mutual understanding, acceptance, and ultimately, respect. Thinking along these lines, we see that we are not nouns but verbs; we, as human beings, are always in a process of change and development. There is continual growth, and like anything that grows, there is nurturing.” –Andrew Luisi
As many of you know, a large part of my involvement as an undergraduate at the University of Tampa was in interfaith initiatives on campus and in the community. My second year as an undergrad, I contacted the Dean of Students looking for ways to better immerse myself on campus and in the community. I was searching for an avenue to find meaning and passion in a point in my life that was rather boring and unproductive. I was thirsty for change and hungry for making a difference. I am not sure if I was looking to find redemption because of my rather selfish acts the year prior, but I knew in my heart I needed to fill a void that was eating at me inside. When she invited me to attend the Faith, Values and Spirituality Resource Team meetings, I was very excited but doubtful that it would be my niche. And a niche was exactly what I was searching for.
To my dismay, the Resource Team was the best thing that could have happened to me. I couldn’t have joined the Resource Team at a better time. The team was exploring options of interfaith programming on campus and ways to better involve our community faith partners with students. Due to my loss of self and questionable faith the year before, I was anxious to find the path I veered off and uncover the new territory necessary to finding me. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to help me rediscover what I lost while working toward something to develop a deeper sense of community and understanding. With the help of the Interfaith Youth Core, the Resource Team was able to build an overwhelming amount of support from the Tampa Bay community and UT faculty, staff and administration. Eboo Patel, founder of IFYC, made a special visit to campus to talk with students about the interfaith movement and to educate members of the Resource Team about how to catalyze such a movement on campus, but they needed a student leader to take the reigns. I knew in my heart that was going to be my job… I was going to take the reigns of leadership and introduce the student body to this foreign concept of coexisting among faith all while trying to restore my own faith.
The summer going into my senior year was a pivotal point in my development as a leader, but also in the development of my faith and my passion for humanity. I worked endless hours with fellow students and mentors to develop a constitution for our new student organization, Better Together Interfaith Student Group. We were dedicated to interfaith cooperation on campus and in the greater community, and wanted to promote understanding and respect for diverse spiritual and nonspiritual beliefs by means of dialogue, education and advocacy. We wanted to promote awareness and understanding of both similarities and differences between all religions, as well as establish a basis in which students could develop strong diverse friendships through interfaith cooperation.
That summer, I attended the Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C. with two of my peers and our Better Together adviser. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the conference with students and interfaith leaders from all different faith and non-faith backgrounds. I was just this small town girl that only knew of Christianity and Judaism, and my only other faith knowledge came from movies and TV shows. :S Ugh… I felt so uneducated. Despite my “life-in-a-box” syndrome, I learned so much about different faiths, non-faiths, beliefs and perspectives on religion, the world and humanity. To this day, I have never felt more accepted, comfortable and hopeful than I did when I was at the Leadership Institute. The interfaith leaders empowered us to take hold of the movement and educate others about the need to build bridges rather than allow faith to be our divide.
My longing for passion and meaning was no more. I found my niche. I uncovered this interest and eagerness that I know I will carry with me for the remainder of my life. My senior year was filled with joys, hopeful moments, learning curves, disappointments and struggles as I built our interfaith organization and introduced it to the student body. I will be the first to admit that there were more disappointments than successes to celebrate, but each disappointment was ingrained with a learning lesson. Those learning lessons truly molded me as a leader and as an interfaith activist.
Unfortunately, graduation ended my efforts with UT’s Better Together Interfaith organization, but it has not ended the movement on campus and in my heart. Although my interfaith efforts at UT are currently on pause until I can return as a professional, my interfaith efforts in my life are on-going. Through my initiatives as an interfaith leader, I have learned so much about myself and my faith. Granted, I still have much to learn, but I am comforted knowing my faith journey is my own. And as far as I’m concerned, I will always be on a faith journey… learning, living, loving and developing that relationship with my God, but I will forever be an advocate for respect and understanding.
Like Andrew said, through our struggles, we gain the capacity to understand that we are not competing with one another, but we are surviving with one another. We are all on our own personal faith journey discovering what it is we believe. What one person believes is no better than what someone else believes. This is not a competition of what to believe. We are merely surviving together. We are discovering what it is that makes us happy, what makes us love, what makes us serve and what makes us fall to our knees in rejoice. When you find someone that identifies with you hold onto them, but for the love of humanity, don’t shut the door to your heart in another believer’s face. Open your heart to them, learn about what makes them happy and befriend them. We are blind in our own faith until we know what’s it’s like to see in another. If we continue to look at faith as a matter of right and wrong, we will never complete the journey to finding ourselves and we will never achieve peace…. yes, world peace.