Last Sunday afternoon, Ulrich Rosenhagen stood in front of a motley arrangement of students, community members, and spiritual leaders insisting that, while the path toward interfaith understanding can be fraught with pitfalls — that we will not always say the right thing, in the right way — those in attendance were on the right track.
His words marked the end of "Intersections of Interfaith," the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s first interfaith conference hosted by the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry and the Interfaith Youth Core of Chicago. In the conference rooms of the Pyle Center, students, educators, activists, and spiritual leaders gathered for a weekend of workshops and dialogue to foster religious and nonreligious pluralism on campus and in the Madison community.
The center is the first fully inclusive interfaith organization at UW-Madison. Established in 2017 and succeeding the Lubar Institute, which encouraged dialogue between the Abrahamic traditions, the center has become a hub for interfaith dialogue and religious, secular and spiritual pluralism. The center aims to increase students’ religious literacy and their ability to communicate across boundaries of faith.
The student interfaith fellows have worked with the center’s first director, Rosenhagen, tirelessly over the past two years to make this mission a reality:
We challenged the “pay-as-you-go” dining policy that disregarded students’ faith-based dietary restrictions; we led religious literacy trainings for youth in the community; we spoke out against religiously motivated killings perpetrated by white supremacists in Pittsburgh, Charleston, Oak Creek, and Christchurch. With the center’s staff and director, we are promoting religious pluralism and speaking truth to power.
Inspiration for the conference came during the fall semester, when we began exploring the possibility of partnering with nationwide organizations. But it was ultimately our yearlong interfaith learning experience that led us to notice how necessary gatherings like this are. While we spoke, intimately, about our traditions we began to recognize how deeply implicated our other social identities are in conversations about religion or morality.
It was because of these conversations that the conference was guided by the concept of intersectionality, a term created by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain how black women experience oppression “greater than the sum of racism and sexism.”
Intersectionality has become a lens for understanding our multiple identities, and how each one affects our experience and worldview. Through intersectionality, one sees individual experiences as a result of the interaction between our various social identities — racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, religious and nonreligious. We consider an intersectional approach to interfaith dialogue — one that accounts for these multiple and overlapping identities — as the best way to understand the role of religious and nonreligious identities in our lives. This approach taught participants how to engage religious and nonreligious diversity and highlighted the experiences of vulnerable groups, or minoritized groups that deserve attention by the interfaith community.
As student fellow Katherine O’Brien explained in the conference’s opening remarks: “We chose to emphasize intersectionality at this conference because we want to create space for discussions of religious identity within larger conversations about diversity and inclusion.”
Holding inclusive, intersectional interfaith dialogue is an act of radical love. We live in a moment that sometimes seems singularly defined by persecution of, and outright violence against, religious communities based on our identities. For people of conscience, it is not enough to bear witness to this moment. We feel a strong duty to have this dialogue, to organize these conversations, to re-define this moment as one marked not by intolerance and hatred, but by empathy and action.
We hope others will walk the path with us.
Samuel Ropa is an interfaith student fellow at the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry and a senior at UW-Madison.
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