My journey with religion and interfaith started before I was born. I am the child of parents who are culturally, racially, and religiously different. My mother is an Afro-Canadian Christian, and my father is an Indo-Guyanese Muslim. Starting with my culturally mixed background and upbringing, my entire life has been about embracing and learning differences with love and a deep sense of appreciation.
by Sabrina N. Jafralie
Growing up I was raised to be open-minded and curious. My parents taught me about my Afro-Canadian and Caribbean Indian cultures, preparing and encouraging me to participate in both Christian and Muslim acts of faith. Neither parent pushed me to choose one faith over the other. Rather, they valued me being free to explore and discover what felt best for me. They sharpened my ability to recognize, celebrate, and admire other people’s backgrounds and faiths. They were both so comfortable in their skins that they laid a foundation for who I am now – promoting active religious literacy and compassionate interfaith learning.
It was no surprise to my parents when I became a secondary school teacher in 2001, specializing in religious education and history. When I began teaching, I did not have a name for the skill that my parents fostered, but nowadays most people would recognize it as religious literacy. My parents had honed it in me with love and compassion, and in turn I wanted to extend that skill to my students.
As a teacher, I wanted to give my students the same freedom to explore and learn about religions that my parents had given me. But I quickly realized that simply gaining knowledge was insufficient. If we want to create religiously literate students and people, we need to push knowledge into action. For the most part, scholars define religious literacy as the gathering of information, where people obtain and learn facts about other religions. Some argue that religious literacy is simply about building a repertoire of facts. But I believe we need to go beyond gathering information.
Being a woman of color with a mixed-race, interfaith background, and being a teacher, led me to this question: How do we go beyond collecting knowledge and apply it to our everyday lives? Was I doing enough by simply teaching and exposing my students to different religious beliefs? The short answer is no. This question demanded that I start thinking about active religious literacy and led to my doctoral research, where I investigated the challenges facing secondary school teachers of Ethics and Religious Culture in Quebec.
In my dissertation, I discovered that teachers need basic religious knowledge as a foundation to teach the course. However, gaining religious knowledge simply meant memorizing facts about different traditions. Was this enough? Was gaining facts going to make teachers, students, and me more religiously literate? Did it make us yearn to be activists in the world? Through research, I began to realize three things: 1) religious literacy is about much more than facticity, 2) people need to connect with each other before faith enters the picture, and 3) interfaith is more a verb than a noun.
With these new insights, I started to think about action, dialogue, and connections. In my work with teacher education and interfaith dialogue, a key component was missing for me. For instance, even if people are becoming more aware of the religious diversity around them, it has not stopped the loss of human life. Esri is a pioneer in Geographic Information Systems that use high tech to nurture peace-making efforts. In one interactive map collaboration, Esri Story Maps and Peace Tech Labs present a chronology of terrorist attacks around the globe. There were 1307 attacks and 8343 fatalities in 2017, and 1523 and 7912 in 2018. In my mind, these growing figures confirm a missing link in our pursuit of interfaith dialogue.
The Missing Link
The missing component is simple: connectivity. I know from experience that when you put others into an interfaith setting, it is evident that there are expectations to be a master of your own tradition, willing to learn about each other’s faith, and to take something away from the dialogue. This kind of dialogue – history and theology and all sorts of information – produces pressure. When we put people in such settings, expecting them to learn, the results can be counterproductive.
If we want people to stand with one another, it starts with cultivating human relationships. Before we can begin to act, we need to develop and nurture compassion for one another at a basic human level. Create situations and dialogue where people get to know each other first; religion and faith can come later. Building human connections first allows us to feel invested in each other. We can search for an entry point, a commonality that connects us. When people develop this kind of connection, it leaves room to grow together, to learn about each other, our interests, our lives, and yes, our faith. In any relationship, especially an interfaith one, there needs to be room to explore in a human and humane manner.
Connection makes interfaith dialogue easier to nurture. In a personal relationship, a set of connectional skills can be cultivated. I believe the two most important skills here are listening and serving. Listening to one another with purpose and intent is essential. We often let our minds drift or anticipate the person’s response and try to formulate our own. Stay present in the moment with the person.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says we are exactly where we need to be right at this exact moment, so when we listen, we need to be right there with that person. In some ways, listening to one another is similar to meditating. It becomes easier when we foster a personal connection with that person. We must continually return to who is right in front of us. Intentional listening allows us to develop mutual curiosity and compassion.
Serving others with compassion is another way to cultivate interfaith connections. For some people the act of serving others is archaic and anti-self-care and thus hard to promote. However, when we connect and care about others, it can be easier to help. When we offer to listen and help others without expectations, it provides them with real value. When we give our time and talents freely, we will find others who are looking to do the same.
Make it your passion and goal to help others, and it will help us all gain a deeper understanding of each other’s core values and religious systems. Simply put, authentic compassion and connection lead to genuine interfaith relationships. If we want to learn about each other we need to connect with each other on a basic human level first, and through that connection we can build the interfaith community that is so needed today.
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