Interfaith dialogue- a discussion between diverse faiths and cultures aimed at creating greater understanding of life. Interfaith dialogue as I witnessed it this weekend- a lot of confused white people who grew up Christian but no longer believed in it wholly.
This past weekend, Oglethorpe’s interfaith and multicultural student organization, Coexist, went on their annual retreat to Ripple, a conference at Elon University in North Carolina that focuses on pluralism and interfaith diversity. As secretary of this organization, I went along. It was quite an experience, to say the least.
There were a lot of benefits. Straight off the bat, Coexist began our road trip with faith discussions and friendly debates surrounding political viewpoints. The six-hour drive brought us all closer together, establishing a good foundation to head into the Conference on Saturday.
However, the Conference itself proved to be slightly problematic. Yes, everyone at the conference came into the scene with open mentalities and interesting narratives. Yes, the experiences were unique, such as touring a masjid or understanding new techniques for meditation and yoga. And yes, I think we all walked away with a better understanding of different faiths or, at the very least, different people. However, the conference didn’t exactly practice what it preached.
The panel leaders preached the purpose of diversity, qualifying it as something that is not inherently good without taking action. But as I looked around the room at all those gathered for this conference, I did not see a lot of diversity. Elon University itself is a predominantly rich, white community, and while this conference pulled from various schools across the Southeast (and one from Minnesota), the overwhelming majority of the room was white.
“A lot of the talks focused on intersectionality, and that was good,” said Ramon Diaz-Soria, treasurer of Coexist. “But then people wouldn’t bring up the fact that they were white, which is a big factor into who you are. Race was something that was really ignored.”
As we began discussions with individuals, a common faith journey story arose as well. For the most part, the students and young adults gathered at this conference had grown up Christian in some capacity and, through one way or another, had grown away from their faith. It seemed most people at the conference seemed confused about where they stood spiritually.
In talking with my fellow Coexist members at the end of the retreat, I figured out why this sat weirdly with me. Here we were, at a Conference aimed at creating diverse discussions surrounding interfaith, but none of the people there seemed to be diverse or have any faith to intersect with others.
In fact, whether or not these individuals had faith didn’t seem to matter all that much, and not necessarily in the good way.
“Most people were there not so much to learn about other faiths,” said Diaz-Soria. “But more so to prove that they’re the ones with the most knowledge and understanding about other faiths.”
The whole conference felt like an act in which everyone was trying to one-up each other at being inclusive. As a result, many of us who were there to learn felt wholly left out.
I hope that in years moving forward, the conference becomes more genuine and shows its interfaith inclusiveness, not just talks about it. And I hope that, whether or not Coexist decides to return next year, we continue to foster real conversations wherever we go.