This post is the third in a series of three posts on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC). For the first, click here; for the second, click here.

Workshop: A Place at the Table

For the third and final workshop session of the conference, I attended “A Place at the Table: Including Atheists, Agnostics, and Secular Humanists in Interfaith Dialogue.” It shouldn’t be surprising that I was very excited about this workshop being offered, IUC_logoas this is a significant growing edge for the larger interfaith movement. Even more exciting: it was the most sizable workshop I attended, with over 45 people in the room. The session was an opportunity for people to share their experiences of secular-religious relations, air and analyze their misconceptions about secular people, and offer best practices for getting secular individuals motivated about interfaith cooperation. I ended up being invited to share a lot from the work that I do and the things that I have encountered. It was a lively conversation with a diversity of perspectives in the room and I was pleased to be a part of it.

Plenary: From Religious Extremism to Interfaith Dialogue

hirschfieldRounding out the keynote addresses at IUC was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He told the story of how he moved away from being a Jewish Zionist extremist through a relationship with someone of another faith and how he came to recognize the importance of pluralism. “We need eachother and we need each other,” said Hirschfield near the conclusion of his moving story.

During the Q&A session Hirschfield was asked about critics and, in light of the recent batch of negative appraisals of my work, I found his answer to be especially wise. “Anytime someone says you shouldn’t question the community is the time to get out,” Hirschfield said. “The more important your cause, the more important the questions are, because these questions move you toward an ethic. When I felt I was in a community where my questions were not welcome, I had to get out.” I couldn’t help but reflect in this moment how welcoming of my challenges and critiques this conference community had been, and how occasionally difficult it has been to have my questions dismissed and my character smeared by many in the Atheist community both at the AAC and in my blog work.

And yet, just as I was tempted to start down the path of “perhaps he’s right – perhaps my efforts in these particular Atheist communities where I’m being rebutted are futile,” he offered a reminder to remain engaged with those who disagree with you in response to the question, “How do you share the idea of interfaith cooperation with people who don’t want to hear it?” Hirschfield replied: “Before you can be anyone’s teacher, you need to be their student… Everybody, no matter how hateful, has something to teach [you].” Ultimately, the “student before teacher” philosophy is one we share. On that note, for those who may be wondering about what is going on with “Burkagate” – in the spirit of building bridges, I reached out to the young woman (one of those wearing a Burka at the American Atheist Convention) who made a YouTube video in which she called me a coward, criticized my comparison of the session to other hate exercises and decried my friend Sayira’s declaration that she found wearing hijab empowering the day after she posted the video. We are exchanging emails at this time; I’ll keep you posted if it seems relevant to do so.

In any event, Hirschfield’s story was a great conclusion to the plenary series and a stark reminder to all conference participants of the power of making relationships with religious others and how pluralism allows us to build connections without needing to sacrifice our individual religious integrity.

Closing

The closing included remarks by Daan Braveman (whose remarks from the opening I recounted in the first IUC post) and Muhammad Shafiq, Executive Director of Nazareth’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. I was invited to give a closing reflection and spoke about Huston Smith, the “strangeness” of interfaith dialogue, and its capacity for change. Two others who were recognized as “Next Generation” leaders we also invited to offer reflections.

webbThe first came from Emily Webb, a young Unitarian Universalist woman from California who is a youth advocate. She delivered a poem entitled “Engage You,” which she had written that morning in response to the conference. She’s given me permission to reproduce it here; though it is a beautiful read, hearing her speak it aloud was all the more powerful:

I saw a man float upside down on his chair

I heard an Iroquois storyteller speak in a language so ancient

she does not know the meaning of some of her words

I learned your name means the light of Ali

I bathed the Buddha in sweet tea

I felt angels underfoot

Can I get a witness?

I have embraced ten new friends

asking the question

over coffee and whiskey

How are we going to get along?

I learned another way to speak

a lexicon of 40 more words for respect and trust

Do you hear me brothers and sisters?

It is with these words these stories I construct

a humble sanctuary

for those who are

still writing letters to

Dr. King, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother T

still raising their hands in classrooms and boardrooms

asking why

still looking into the eyes of the Other

saying

how can I engage you?

alaniI spoke after Emily and was followed by Alykhan Alani, a Muslim from Rochester who is a student and social activist. He offered the following reflection, which he was given me permission to post here:

Sensei Mio told me

there is only one stream

V.V. Raman taught me to embody

Gandhi and King’s dream

From Nicole, our continued commitment

to the Earth, our mother

and from Emily-

trust and kinship we find in one another

Sister Joan awakened me

to the beauty of feminine divinity

and my friend Chris

to belief in the faith of humanity

the dynamic Eboo Patel

has empowered this movement of change

and… isn’t it strange?

that the take-away lesson here

the awakening call

is that we must have love

for one and for all.

three

L to R: Webb, me, Alani, looking like the "Next Generation Leaders" we are.

Salaam.

The closing left all involved motivated, energized, reflective and grateful. I was privileged to be in attendance for this conference, which confirmed that the interfaith movement is becoming a force to be reckoned with and is a place of great understanding and social change.

This last weekend I was in Boston for the fourth and final leg of my East Coast “Chris-cross” (credit to Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM’s Tom Herman for this term, which he used during a remote radio interview he facilitated from the conference with me, Alani, and Webb – listen to the archive here, fast forward to about 41 minutes in), where I attended both the Secular Student Alliance’s New England Leadership Summit and dropped by the CIRCLE National Conference 2010. Summaries on those coming soon; check out my Twitter for the conclusion of my trek and beyond.

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“Every 30 seconds, a child dies of malaria.” This is our world. How can we make it a place where children do not die of malaria with such devastating frequency? Two people working in Chicago — not exactly a hotbed of malaria outbreaks — have an idea. And it involves the collaboration of people of all religious (and nonreligious) backgrounds.

me and tony

TBFF: "Tony Blair Faith Foundation"? No. "Totally Best Friends Forever," right?

Earlier this week for this month’s Interfaith Roundtable on Vocalo, I brought in Amy McNair and Rebecca Oyen from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, as well as their friend Allison Fisher, to discuss their efforts to eradicate malaria. Rebecca and Amy are the Chicago delegation of the Faiths Act Fellows, a collaborative project of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the Interfaith Youth Core. As co-facilitator with Vocalo personality Tom Herman, I got in on the conversation as well, which covered the work they do and the idea of people of different beliefs collaborating around common values. It was a great conversation and I had a lot of fun facilitating it. You can listen to it here. Stay tuned to NonProphet Status for future updates on the very important work these two are doing in Chicago.

Chris at Vocalo

My Chicago Public Radio money shot.

Who says radio is dead? Certainly not Chicago Public Radio offshoot Vocalo.org!

I’ve been collaborating with Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM since last fall, providing religious-themed content for their on-air programming (you can sample some of these roundtables here, here and here). But today I had the privilege of appearing on the air to discuss NonProphet Status’ ongoing Share Your Secular Story contest, my personal views on secular community-building and story-sharing, the current non-religious identity crisis, why I don’t particularly care for the term “nonbeliever,” and, of course, rap outfit Three 6 Mafia and rock ensemble The Grateful Dead.

Be warned, potential listeners — with my Master’s thesis due a week from today, I was wildly sleep-deprived for this interview. (Also, I made an awkward attempt to both cast the message of religion-friendly secularism as a prophetic stance and not call myself a prophet in the process. Well, at least we had a good laugh about it.) Fortunately, my near-catatonic delivery was enlivened by Vocalo’s electric on-air personality Tom, and I was joined mid-way through by brilliant Share Your Secular Story judge panelist Nick Mattos, who woke up terribly early to get in on the fun via phone from Portland, OR because, well, flights are expensive and he’s a busy man. Nick shared some stories from his religious past and highlighted why he thinks this contest is important even though he is a Buddhist. Wrapping up the program, I highlighted some of the details of and reasons for the story contest. All told, I had a blast talking about the contest and my work and getting to hear Nick speak more about his experiences and perspective.

For those of you who couldn’t eek out of bed to creak your radio knob at 8 AM (CST) this morning, Vocalo’s already got a post up about the interview that will soon contain an MP3 of the interview alongside Tom’s typically tongue-in-cheek musings, for your listening and reading pleasure. For now, you can check out a steaming full archive of this morning’s program (just fast-forward to around the 62 minute mark). [UPDATE: “Chris Stedman, Sort of Secular Prophet” is now up.] Thanks to Tom, Mr. Mattos, and to everyone who listened! Be sure to visit the Share Your Secular story contest page to learn more about the contest, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and regularly check back to NonProphet Status for updates.

joanna-cprCheck out the archive of this week’s roundtable that I coordinated for Chicago Public Radio / Vocalo.org on Religion and Media / Art as a part of a series of roundtables they invited me to assemble. The panel includes Joanna Shenk (pictured at left), a Mennonite community organizer in Elkhart, Indiana, and poet Tim DeMay. As always, I had a great time doing it. I’ve been doing these bi-weekly for their December theme of “Faith,” but though December is over I have been asked to continue doing them as I am available, and I’ve agreed to commit to once a month. I’m very excited and honored to be able to continue doing this, and look forward to some engaging roundtables in the months to come!

Non-Religious Radio Roundtable

December 15, 2009

vocaloThis month I’ve been coordinating a series of on-air religion-related roundtables for Chicago Public Radio’s awesome mutant appendage Vocalo (sometimes affectionally dubbed YouTube for Radio). After bringing them in for a media training and coordinating their live broadcast (archive here) at the Interfaith Youth Core Conference I helped plan, I was invited to do bi-weekly roundtables for their December theme, Faith. I have had such a great time doing it — I’m responsible for coming up with each roundtable’s topic, populating the panels with interesting folks, crafting some prompt questions for participants to consider, and then participating in each panel along with the hour’s fantastic host, Tom.

This morning the panel’s topic was Non-Religious Identity. Though it took a few minutes for everyone to get warmed up, the panel was fantastic — lively, engaging, and unafraid to challenge one another, especially near the end. You can find an archive of the live broadcast here.

Also, here is a link to the first panel I coordinated, which was about Evangelical Christian Identity in America. Finally, here is my first on-air appearance with several other IFYC staff. We were on to promote the conference, and I spent a good deal of time talking about my non-religious motivations for doing interfaith work.

Stay tuned — the next panel is Tuesday, December 29th at 9 AM. You can listen live at vocalo.org or, if you live in Northwest Indiana or Chicago, on WBEW 89.5 FM.

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