Today’s guest blogger is Nicholas Lang, an intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. He’s previously written for NonProphet Status about his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Without further ado:

HereafterA couple weeks ago, I attended the launch of the Faith Project with my friend, Miranda. We sat in the back, in close proximity to the tasty treats, and listened to amazing religious people talk about how their backgrounds inspire them to fight for justice and equality for all. Although we stood in solidarity with these interfaith activists, Ms. Hovemeyer and I came from a far different perspective than our religious compatriots did. We both identify as agnostics, and together, we help make up the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago.

And as I expected, one puzzled audience member interrogated us as to our involvement in interfaith. As an agnostic passionate about work erroneously perceived as only involving religious people, I get questions like his all the time: Why do you care about religious work?

And another personal favorite: Aren’t you guys against religion?

A: We’re not.

In fact, Miranda and I both label ourselves as People of Faith, although that faith happens to be an indefinite one. As a Humanist with a Unitarian Universalist background, Miranda’s tradition taught that religions share more commonality than difference. In her understanding, this overlap has the power to unite disparate communities.

Working both in interfaith and within the queer community showed me that we have a duty to build these bridges ourselves. The only way to create tolerance and religious plurality in society is by actively working toward it. I might not have a label to describe what tradition I ascribe to, but I believe in the power of people.

I believe in us.

At an interfaith event that Miranda and I helped moderate last week, we once again stood surrounded by religious people. Organized by the DePaul A.V. Club and DePaul Interfaith, this “Dinner and a Movie with Interfaith” utilized art as dialogue to start a discussion around religious difference. Our screening of the Clint Eastwood film “Hereafter” drew around 50 guests, from an incredible diversity of campus religious groups. Among many others, I stood with Protestants from DePaul InterVarsity, Catholics from University Ministry, Muslims from DePaul’s UMMA organization.

But more importantly, non-religious people joined us at the forefront of this discussion. That evening, we welcomed guests from the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, our university’s organization for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. Also known as DAFT, the group is just over a year old and new to interfaith dialogue on campus. The evening’s discussion centered on perspectives on life and the afterlife, and in joining the conversation, I sensed a lot of hurt and resentment from my non-religious friends. As an agnostic, I understood exactly where they were coming from.

I would be lying to you if I told you that religion is always good, that faith always acts as a tool for empowerment. Scott, the evening’s most vocal DAFT member, lamented the damage that religion can inflict when he pointed out that any discussion of a religious afterlife meant little to him. As a gay man, he believed his Catholic background had already condemned him to Hell.

However, something incredible can happen when religion does help people to heal the divides that ail them. Although many of us disagreed about what happens to us when we die, we found out that the value our traditions place on death tells us each something about how to live. For many agnostics and atheists, nothing awaits us after our death, and this reality acts as a powerful incentive to live life to its fullest now. Our school’s UMMA representatives discussed the role of our others in keeping the memory of the departed alive after they die. According to their tradition, we spiritually live on in those we impact in our lifetime.

Whether we were discussing Heaven or a “fluffy Soul Cloud in the sky,” we were articulating the same needs in our lives: the need for purpose, for community, for connectedness. We all desired to find something, whether in this life or this next.

All of us have a role in creating conversations in our lives that work towards creating common ground. At the end of the discussion, Scott asked if those around him felt that all of us could truly be friends, despite our stark ideological divides. The room resoundingly answered yes.

At moments like these, I know that non-religious folks belong in the interfaith movement. If faith is to unite build bridges across faith lines, skeptics have a key role in ensuring that religion acts as a force for good in the world. Although this was not the case when he began working in interfaith, Huffington Post columnist Chris Stedman recently mentioned that we agnostics and atheists are now “hard to miss.” That’s because we have a unique perspective that is increasingly impossible to ignore, even if what we bring to the table can sometimes be difficult to talk about.

And if last week’s event showed anything, there’s another reason that today’s non-religious folks stand out in interfaith work:

We’re helping lead it.

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post Faith Divide.

NickNicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.

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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.

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.

And now, some things going on in the world of NonProphet Status!

Jettison Quarterly at NEXT

jettisonThis past weekend I worked at the booth for Jettison Quarterly, the Chicago-based Arts and Culture magazine for which I am the Religion Staff Writer, at NEXT 2010: The Invitational Exhibition of Emerging Art, a part of Chicago’s Artopolis. The fair was a blast, as much for the excellent works on display as for the people I met. Writing for Jettison is great because it covers such a spectrum of subjects related to art and culture in Chicago that I am constantly interacting with folks from all different walks of life through my work with them. Jettison is also one of three publications that Share Your Secular Story contest winners will be eligible for publication in. Check out Jettison’s most recent issue for my profile of Ky Dickens, the director of documentary film Fish Out of Water. Oh, and speaking of…

Fish Out of Water DVD Release Party

foowLast week I attended the DVD release party for Fish Out of Water, the documentary film by Chicago filmmaker Ky Dickens. The release party was DJed by friends Mel Racho and Erik Roldan, who is also a co-founder of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC) with me and is a member of the panel of judges for the Share Your Secular Story contest. There was also entertainment by the hilarious Cameron Esposito and the energetic ensemble JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, who put on an amazing show. The DVD release brought out an amazing community of people, which truly reflects the power of the film. Check out their website for more, and submit to the Share Your Secular Story contest by May 15 to be eligible to win a signed copy of the DVD!

Share Your Secular Story Contest Nearing Conclusion

syssIt’s come up a few times already in this post – our Share Your Secular Story contest – and it’s quickly coming to a close! The submission deadline is in 12 days; we’ve gotten some amazing submissions already but really want to make sure we’re getting the widest, most diverse set of secular stories. We hope that, if you haven’t already, you’ll consider submitting to the contest. All of the information you need can be found here; if you have any additional questions, don’t hesitate to contact us at nonprophetstatus@gmail.com.

Robocalls

robophonesFinally and most strangely: last week I received a series of bizarre, anonymous robocalls to my cell phone that were very sexually explicit and said that my “atheist blog” had made some god angry and demanded I take this blog down. The thing is, I can’t really say I’m sure they were sent by a religious person after listening to them, since the references to god were all explicit and offensive. At first I wondered if they weren’t from a friend trying to get my goat, but no one has come forward and I don’t think any of my prank-happy friends could hold out on accepting credit this long. The robocall company can’t access the information of who had them sent to me, so I’m at a loss. Either way, they stopped coming and my blogging continues. Whoever sent the calls — thanks for the puzzled laugh!

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