Following Monday’s guest post, “The Gay Divide,” I’m excited to bring you yet another perspective on queer issues and interfaith work. Today’s post for our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Robert Chlala, a Campus Engagement Associate with the Interfaith Youth Core. Written in advance of the recent IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institutes, it is an important and timely message on the importance of LGBTQ participation in interfaith work. As a queer interfaith advocate, Robert’s message resonates deeply with me. I hope it will with you, too. As Robert shows, not only does it get better, but we’re “better together.” Without further ado:

better togetherNews had recently broke about the suicide of yet another LGBTQ youth in the U.S., the latest in a rash that has brought to light the exclusion and violence that continues to plague those marked “different.”

Speaking to a top conservative leader and member of the Young Republicans on her campus, Lily Connor calmly relayed her story of how she has worked to create a space for interfaith dialogue in the social justice campaigns she leads. She pauses for him to share his experiences, but he is unsure where he fits in. As she guides him he lights up as he realizes that he too has a story: that he is living interfaith cooperation in that very moment.

This could be your typical story of a growing interfaith student movement, one that we hear at Interfaith Youth Core almost daily. But I’m leaving out a few important details:

• Lily is transgender, and the leader of Feminist Voices and several other campus action groups.
• The campus is Southwestern University, located in the small, conservative commuter town of Georgetown, Texas.

In the face of a more-than-uphill struggle, Lily could have stayed home that day and forgotten she had ever heard the word “interfaith.” She could have chosen not to brave the possibility of awkward glances, retreated from trying to give LGTBQ people a voice in growing social movements.

Instead, as Lily explained in her application to IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington, DC – which she will attend this weekend with some 300-some college students, faculty and staff from across the country – she knew she could not just stay home. She wrote, “My faith informs the social work I engage in, just as other people’s religious or secular values inform theirs… In short, social justice and interfaith cooperation need each other.”

So she came to the table.

As did the several members of Auburn University’s LGBTQ organization, who worked with with two dozen multicultural and faith-based student leaders on a beautiful fall Sunday last month to understand how interfaith cooperation is integral to all their efforts at the Alabama public university.

As did Ted Lewis, the Assistant Director for Sexual and Gender diversity at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, who participated in an intensive interfaith workshop we held last Friday. Glowing, he shared how he was inspired by several local churches’ efforts to build bridges with LGBTQ communities.

Ted and his fellow staff, listening to the stories of young students from across the South that IFYC has encountered in the last few months, beamed with the understanding that the interfaith movement isn’t just something that happens in remote big cities up North or on the West Coast. It is already happening in neighborhoods and on campuses a stone’s throw away.

At a time when perhaps we have never needed it more, this growing movement is creating a space for young people – from Kentucky to California – to articulate their values and truly come as they are, towards creating a better world.

This weekend, hundreds of these dedicated college students and faculty, of all religions, ethnic and racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities, will gather to take this vision to the next level.

As part of IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute, they will gain tools to take interfaith cooperation home to their campuses, towards tackling some of the most pressing social issues of our time. As part of the Better Together campaign kicking off this fall, they will change the conversation on faith and values.

What they may not realize is that – by sitting in the room together – they are already moving the course of history. They will confront their fears and prejudices. They will ask questions they were long afraid to confront.

And they will understand that they are poised to overcome the verbal and physical violence that drive young people to hopelessness, to defeat the virulent xenophobia and intolerance that colored this last summer, and to build a world where we are truly better together.

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post Faith Divide.

RobertRobert Chlala is a Campus Engagement Associate with the Interfaith Youth Core and a freelance writer. Over the last 10 years, he has helped lead numerous social change organizations, such as the California Fund for Youth Organizing , which have been rooted in the power of young people to radically impact issues such as immigration, media, human rights, and education. Interfaith engagement has been a core of this work: he has seen first-hand how youth working around shared values have transformed his home communities in Los Angeles and Northern California – and are creating a better world around the U.S. He is also a practicing Nichiren Buddhist and active with the local Soka Gakkai International chapter.

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Today’s post in our series of guest contributors is by Vladimir Chituc, President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Like previous guest contributors Lucy Gubbins and Heidi Anderson, Vladimir wrestles with the issue of how atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and the like should approach religion and the religious, and how the larger movement might work toward establishing some shared goals. Without further ado:

divideAs a relative newcomer to the broader skeptic and humanist movement, I’ll admit that I was somewhat at a loss when Chris first approached me to write a guest post. Though I spend eleven months of every year in the implicitly secular and liberal North East, an area with an underlying atmosphere suggestive of religion and atheism as private affairs that publicly hold little importance, I was raised in a conservative and devout small town where I’ve been able to catch a small glimpse of religion’s ills so well documented and addressed by my more vocal and aggressive superiors in our movement.

I find this internal disparity even more jarring when interacting with my religious classmates that have proven to be consistently liberal, accepting of contrary viewpoints, and just generally wonderful people. So as an ardent skeptic and atheist, I find this leaves me in a somewhat interesting position in the supposed “accommodationist” vs. “confrontationist” dispute.

Where can I side on a debate so stereotypically framed as a conflict between skeptical rationality and pragmatic cooperation when I strongly value both? Do I promote rationality and consequently alienate potential local allies, or do I work to build bridges while spurning those who legitimately address religion’s ills elsewhere?

I’d like to think that these two values — skepticism and cooperation — are not intrinsically at odds. So while I, like some others, am in the process of forging my own interfaith ties and promoting rationality within my own group, I try to keep the following points in mind. I hope to share these with the humble hope that some others may find in them some relevance.

There is no set of consistent values that intrinsically unite the non-religious movement. If we are only brought together by a belief that we don’t share, should a disagreement on our values or how to implement them surprise us at all? Some of us are going to be really interested in interacting and cooperating with those of faith, while others of us are going to find the idea inane and counterproductive.

Instead of calling each other insufferable morons or atheist fundamentalists, we might consider valuing the unique perspectives we all bring to the table. My group runs that gamut from ardent anti-theists to proponents of an abstract deism perhaps recognizable only by Spinoza, and yet somehow we get past these differences and find our conversations so much more interesting despite a unifying philosophy.

We should take deep pride in the diversity of thought and opinion that is the hallmark of a freethinking group, and not expect a completely unified position. In an open marketplace of ideas, competition and disagreement should be seen as a source of value and innovation, not as a source of bitter conflict.

Bridge-building is awesome, but we should start with each other. If we can recognize the importance of reaching out to those of faith, then we can surely recognize the importance of reaching out to our disagreeing non-religious peers as well. We so easily see the tribal in-group/out-group mentality that leads to much of the bigotry that we condemn in religion and other groups, yet it’s becoming increasingly common on both sides of the accommodation/confrontation debate to turn a blind-eye and practice that exact same thing.

When we marginalize an entire group of people simply as an “other,” we commit the egregious error of attributing the worst stereotypes of a group to the individuals of that group. P.Z. Myers becomes a monster that would punch a well-intentioned grandmother for saying “God bless you” following a sneeze, and atheists interested in interfaith work are painted as only seeking the approval of the religious while abandoning their atheist peers.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re on the same side and have many of the same goals, and, though we may disagree on some finer points, we certainly both play an important role. It might behoove us to see each other as allies with different but overlapping values, while rejecting any divisive language that serves no other purpose but to alienate each other.

We’re already a small enough group as it is; do we want to make ourselves even smaller? So it might be best to follow Chris’ lead, reach out to each other, and…

Focus on the values that we do share. I know I started this piece by saying that there are no values that intrinsically unite anyone in non-belief, but I’m not contradicting myself; by being a non-believer there are no values that you must have. But I think there are still some values that most, if not all of us, can agree on — even if just pragmatically.

Though the non-religious movement may tend to branch out in different directions at its extremities, there remains a core of shared values that can be focused on. If we can find common ground with the religious, we can definitely find common ground with each other.

Can we all agree that a society based on secularism, not theocracy, is the best kind of society, and that no one should have any kind of belief forced on them? Can we all agree on the importance of science education and free thought, while denouncing compulsory adherence to preferential and localized dogma?

I realize that I’m not an expert or an authority so I don’t have these answers, but I think this is a job that the leaders of our movement can work together on. Because if we talk to each other and find this common ground, then while we are in the process of drawing out this picture of our values with their own relative hues of importance, we can subdivide ourselves further based on whatever weight we choose to give any one in particular, be it skepticism, cooperation, or something else entirely.

If we all know how we fit into the broader non-religious picture, then we can work toward our own values while keeping in line with those that we share. So long as we all can work toward forwarding and promoting these common values, I don’t think any of us can say that anyone else is doing it wrong.

VladVladimir Chituc is a junior at Yale University and the President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. A self-identified skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist, he’s currently majoring in psychology and studying philosophy in order to better understand religious thought and its origins.

Today’s guest post comes from Jessica Kelley, a member of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC). Kelley offers a reflection on our recent “Building Bridges: Muslim and Secular Communities for Free Speech” event (which was, amazingly, reported on from as far away as the New Delhi Chronicle). For additional thoughts on our event, check out member Joseph R. Varisco’s reflection.

Shi Tao

Shi Tao

I visited China in the summer of 2005, and I have never forgotten the generosity of the people I met during my travels there. When I sat down to write a letter to the Chinese Prime Minister on Wednesday evening, it was this generosity that became the subject of my letter, and it was to this generosity that I appealed on behalf of Shi Tao, a Chinese pro-democracy journalist currently imprisoned by the Chinese government for exercising his freedom of speech.   

I hadn’t planned on writing a letter of understanding and friendship to China’s Prime Minister; I hadn’t planned on putting my own return address on the envelope; and I hadn’t planned on having a face or a name, or on recognizing that my letter’s recipient would have a face and name either.

Prior to sitting down to write, though, I was fortunate enough to dialogue with my fellow SHAC (Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago) members and members of Chicago’s Muslim community. Our discussion revolved around Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), an event organized by secular student groups on three Midwestern college campuses in reaction to death threats made by Muslim extremists against the writers of South Park after they portrayed the Prophet Muhammad in a recent episode of the show. 

SHAC organized the letter-writing event with our Muslim sisters and brothers in order to exercise free speech in a way that we felt would be constructive and, I suppose in some ways, to differentiate our Secular Humanist organization from those that are responsible for EDMD. And those are worthy goals. But as I sat and listened Wednesday evening to the myriad perspectives around me — the hurt feelings, the indignation, the desire for peace, the compassion — what I chalkmuhammadrealized was that something greater than those goals was happening organically, just because we were all there together, talking and listening. Minds were opening, and connections were being made. And it’s interesting, I think, that while we all went there that night in near complete agreement with one another, we all still had so much to teach and to learn.

So two nights ago I showed up as a member of this organization, ready to meet members of a certain community and to write letters to a certain government requesting that this person be released on matters of principal. I showed up all drenched in abstractions, you know? But then I met people with whole lives of experience behind their eyes. And I began to respect the folks around me — not for their roles in their various organizations, or for their esteemed careers or degrees, but for the human experience that each brought to the table.

And when it was time to say my piece to the Prime Minister, I wrote to him about Zhi He, the man who invited me into his home for rice wine and peanuts and sent me away with the fruit from his garden even though he was just barely able to feed his family. And I asked him how the hospitality and generosity that I was shown in China could be withheld from China’s own citizen, Shi Tao. And I asked if he’d ever looked into the eyes of Shi Tao and seen the experience behind them. Because I’m really starting to think that all these organizations that we think are so divisive really only exist to bring us together to argue and fight and maybe — finally — to see each other.

Jessica Kelley is a Master of Arts student at Chicago Theological Seminary, where she began her studies in gender and faith in 2007. She also works in residential development, is the Treasurer for SHAC, and sometimes even moonlights as a daughter, fiancée, and friend.

share your secular storyWhen we put out a call for stories just a few months ago, we received an influx of submissions from all across the United States and even across the globe, with entries from Ireland and Kenya and a story from one entrant’s childhood growing up in India. This great diversity of submissions made judging these and determining a batch of winners a difficult task for our esteemed panel of judges made up by the former Director of Amnesty International and 2000 “Humanist of the Year” Dr. William Schulz, the highly regarded author and academic Dr. Sharon Welch, the highest ranking Asian-American slam poet of all time Alvin Lau, the brilliant interfaith activist Mary Ellen Giess, the respected and poetic young West Coast writer Nick Mattos, and the renowned blogger, community activist and DJ Erik Roldan. But they rose to the occasion and the votes are in; we’re pleased to announce the winners of the Share Your Secular Story contest!

Interfaith

Winners: Jeff Pollet and Vandana Goel LaClair (tie)

Runner-Up: Rory Fenton

Moral Imagination

Winner: Corinne Tobias

Runners-Up: 1. Beatrice Marovich | 2. Jonathan S. Myerov

Youth

Winner: Joseph Blaha

Runners-Up: 1. Stephen D. Goeman, II | 2. Kyle Morgan

Congratulations to all of our honorees! You should be receiving your prizes (depending on the category, a signed book by Eboo syssPatel or Greg Epstein, a signed DVD by Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens or signed CD by Ben Lundquist, per the contest description page) soon. And a special congratulations to our winners Jeff Pollet, Vandana Goel LaClair, Corinne Tobias and Joseph Blaha — your submissions will be eligible for publication in the Washington Post Faith Divide, Killing the Buddha, and Jettison Quarterly. More information on that to come.

Thank you to everyone who submitted to our contest for demonstrating that secular stories really do matter. Thank you to our panel of judges for donating your time and wisdom, and to our partners who donated prizes and publication space. But more than anything, I cannot wait for everyone to read what our honorees have produced.

Today’s guest post comes from Joseph R. Varisco, a member of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC). It is a response to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day and an explanation of why SHAC is organizing a different kind of event for tomorrow (details here.)

bridgeDialogue is one of the simplest, most complicated processes for people. Approaching that person you’ve had your eye on all night to ask for a date, telling your parents news you know is going to make them go red in the face, entering into a new school or job for the first time and running a script through your head, editing and reediting what you want to say to make a great first impression — dialogue is both unavoidable and messy.

And then there are the greater dialogues of our times: Can I honestly and openly speak of my sexual orientation? Can I express my position on the state of the wars we are currently engaged in? Can I represent my religious or secular beliefs and remain respected among my friends, peers, co-workers and community? 

We live in a time where dialogue is happening instantaneously. We can update our facebook status and blog our hearts out in the ambiguous and safe realm of the internet every millisecond. In doing so my greater hope is that this dialogue will find a way to transcend the boundaries of keyboards and box screens and find a more active place at our kitchen tables, in our classrooms, on the streets and in the institutions that represent a civilized society.

A few weeks ago an event took place known now as Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), which took the principle of transcending our electronic lives and actively spoke out. However, there was perhaps one important lesson missed in the transition. Call it respect, responsibility, compassion or consideration; call it, if you wish, human decency, political correctness or engaging in polite society. I call it “hope.”

Among my peers I have witnessed an emerging conflict of spiritual identity. While many follow in the footsteps of their predecessors — family, heritage or otherwise — there are just as many spinning free out there in the world simply attempting to connect to one another. Still others are taking a history of deeply embedded religious and spiritual conversation and attempting to bring it to the 21st century.

EDMD brought a conversation to the 21st century in its decision to make a political statement against terrorism when the writers of South Park received death threats for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a recent episode. The decision of those participating in EDMD held a meaningful intention yet, perhaps through a lack of leadership or an unwillingness to engage in dialogue, missed the greater opportunity.

The choice to take a day and create numerous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was intended to send a message of commitment to free speech but instead took what was already an unsteady bridge of difference in culture and identity and removed a few more rungs. The bridge I am envisioning is one of those Indiana Jones deep-in-the-jungle bridges — you know, that one where we know at least one person on the journey is going to fall through an unreliable old wood step and maybe, just maybe, someone will not be making the journey back. 

Indiana Jones always finds a way to make it to the other side and back. He is not looking at what is right in front of him but what is all around him, and he has the trust of those he travels with. Sure, that is a rather dramatic approach to our discourse, but we are talking swashbucklers here. And when it comes down to it, a fight for free speech against Islamic terrorists is quite the human drama (or so Fox’s 24 would suggest). 

Dialogue. Let’s create an alternative plot to the already predictable pitfalls that beset us. Let’s sit down with those of different belief systems — secularists, Muslims, etc. — and create a better script.

On Wednesday, June 2nd at 6PM the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago and various members of Chicago’s Muslim community are coming together to do just that. We each have a shared value and commitment to free speech and recognize its plight within our own communities and internationally. Working together with one another we wish to bring back hope; hope that we can transcend our personal perspectives and the sanctuary of our home offices and laptops to create a dialogue that carries us all toward a better world. 

The point here is that maybe — just maybe — if we look at all of those around us and take into consideration a growing and changing culture already a part of the American palette we too, like Indiana Jones and company, can make it across the bridge together and back. We may have to leave the so-called treasure we find on the other side behind, but if we cannot all share in it, is it even worth having?

variscoJoseph R. Varisco is a Political Science major with a Public Policy Concentration from National-Louis University living in Chicago, IL. He is currently networking with various pro-gay rights campaigns and LGBTQ organizations across the city in an effort to highlight some of the more pressing issues facing the LGBTQ community. Building momentum to increase awareness of transgendered and race/religious issues while cultivating progressive dialogue on policy and leadership programs for queer youth has become the center of his current study and work. Joseph is also the Outreach Coordinator for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago and spends a solid majority of his free time in the kitchen.

I’m the co-founder and Service Project Coordinator for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC), and we’ve got a big event coming up in less than a week. See below for more information — please come and invite others!

WHEN: Wednesday June 2 (6/2) at 6 PM
WHERE: 910 W. Van Buren St., 4th Floor
WHO: Secular and Muslim Chicagoans
WHAT: An event convening the secular and Muslim communities of Chicago to write letters for Amnesty International to defend free speech as an alternative to “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

 
amnesty-internationalThe Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC) is partnering with members of Chicago’s Muslim community to promote free speech and demonstrate that people of different religions and no religion at all can collaborate around common values. This event comes in the wake of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a campaign for free speech done as a reaction to the recent censorship of a South Park episode featuring a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as a death threat to the creators of the show. Many secular student groups and individuals participated in drawing representations of Muhammad (an offensive act to many Muslims) as an attempt to promote free speech. However, in doing so they attacked and alienated a specific religious group.
 
Because EDMD was purportedly about advocating for freedom of speech, SHAC is engaged in a project that will specifically address the issue of free speech. Rather than directly respond to EDMD, we want to move forward with the mission that EDMD aimed to fulfill – advocating for free speech – but do so in a way that more directly addresses the issue without targeting our Muslim brothers and sisters. The intention is that it will stand as an example of how diverse groups can collaborate to advocate for free speech through a more effective tactic than EDMD.
 
Scheduled for Wednesday June 2nd at 6pm on the fourth floor of 910 W. Van Buren St. Chicago, IL 60607, this event will find secular folks and Muslims coming together to write letters for Amnesty International USA’s Shi Tao case. In 2004, Chinese journalist Shi Tao used his Yahoo! email account to send a message to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website. In his email, he summarized a government order directing media organizations in China to downplay the upcoming 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Police arrested him in November 2004, charging him with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” Authorities used email account holder information supplied by Yahoo! to convict Shi Tao in April 2005 and sentence him to 10 years in prison. You can find more information on his case here.

RSVP on Facebook or Bridge-Builders!
 
Interested in being an event partner or affiliate? Contact Chris at nonprophetstatus@gmail.com!

The following guest post comes from Mary Ellen Giess, a member of the Share Your Secular Story contest panel of judges. The contest closes in only 3 DAYS so don’t delay — submit your story today!
share your secular story

Why are secular stories important? Because the secular community lacks an identity. Because surveys demonstrate that when people truly know others of diverse backgrounds, they are less likely to have bigoted opinions about one another. Because secularists shouldn’t just be defined by the things they don’t believe. Because the important topics discussed on this blog (Burkagate, Chalking Muhammad) are so much more powerful when there are stories of real people behind the controversial opinions. Because the non-religious should have a chance to be president, too. Because there is a growing population of secularists who deserve to have a voice.

All of these things point to one very important issue: Secular Humanists need to express themselves, and their deeply held personal beliefs, in a society marked by religious discourse. At the Interfaith Youth Core, we are building a movement of young people who are dedicated to religious pluralism — but that movement is not truly successful unless the secular community is involved as well. Secular stories can do so much for the secular community — all of the things I mentioned above — but in addition to all of that, secular stories can bring the secular community into conversation with religious community about the many things we can do together. Secular stories can serve the crucial function of a bridge — from the secular community to the rest of society — to begin to build relationships that will better society at large.

Mary Ellen GiessMary Ellen Giess works for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) in their Strategic Partnerships program, where she works on policy initiatives and is responsible for much of IFYC’s campus outreach. She graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a Master’s Degree in Religion, Ethics, and Politics in 2006. Studying the intersection of religion and government through a multidisciplinary lens, Mary Ellen took classes at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School while interning at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Prior to attending HDS, Mary Ellen graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in Religious Studies and Italian.

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