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Why Leading the ILI is Personal for Me

At this point, the only consistent thing about this year is people telling each other how unprecedented it is. So, I don’t have to tell you about the turbulent times we live in right now. As the new Director of the Interfaith Leadership Institute, however, I will tell you how excited I am to be leading the ILI; a program that gathers students and educators from across the country to learn about interfaith engagement.  

I wanted to share a bit of my own story, so you can understand why the ILI means so much to me, especially during this moment. I grew up in a small town in the middle of North Carolina. My family and I were Lutherans (ELCA). Although we would go to church on Sundays and I got confirmed, we didn’t talk much about religion at home. It seemed like something confined to a few hours on Sundays. 

In my town, we didn’t have much religious diversity (I don’t think that’s even a term we would have known!). We had Presbyterian churches, and Baptist churches, and Methodist churches, and nondenominational churches. At the time, the biggest difference between all these churches seemed to be which pastor was the most long-winded. I remember my mom telling me during one service that our pastor needed to keep his sermon’s shorter so we could beat the Baptists to the cafeteria for Sunday lunch. We had a handful of Jewish students and a couple of Muslim students at my school, but both groups had to drive over thirty minutes away to the “big city” of Greensboro to attend any type of organized service.  

It wasn’t until college that I encountered any type of major religious difference. I went to UNC-Chapel Hill and my entering class was the first class to start school after 9/11. There were conversations, both in classes and out, about big topics: nationalism and the Iraq War, racial divisions and campus culture, sexual orientation, and legal rights. Issues of race, gender, class, and religious identity consumed campus. I was forced for the first time to articulate what I believed. I was comfortable talking about race, national identity, and sexual orientation. I had either read about or heard articulations of these ideas in courses, from friends, or my knowledge. But I was completely inarticulate when talking about religion and its impact on the wider world. Some of that was just not encountering a lot of religious diversity in my life, but a lot of it was just not having the language or confidence to engage in these conversations. When I got the chance to work at IFYC years later, I jumped at it; I wanted to create spaces where students like me, and very much unlike me, could talk about these critical issues.  

The ILI matters for that reason. There is simply nothing else like it out there today. You’ll have conversations at an ILI that you won’t have anywhere else. I could spend a lot of time talking about the inspirational keynotes from IFYC’s founder, Eboo Patel, or the knowledge-building training led by expert IFYC facilitators. But my favorite part of the ILI is the moments when participants hear from each other. Last year, during a snack break (which, in all honesty, might be the most popular segment of the ILI) I overheard an LDS student from California chatting with a Sunni Muslim from Ohio. I looked around the elevator banks and saw a group of students from one training cohort continuing their conversation from their room about how race centers and/or alienates them from their worldview…and how they planned to address that on their campus…and, of yeah, are the lemon bars they just put out gluten-free? It does all come back to food, as my mom reminded me oh so long ago.  

This year, as we have converted to an all-virtual format, we’ve tried to focus on re-creating the spirit of the ILI and not just the activities. Even online, we want to create space for those casual but meaningful “hallway conversations” to happen. We have elements, like our virtual Talk Better Together, which will allow participants to talk with each other about their worldview and what matters most to them. I’m particularly excited about our closing panel, focusing on the two issues that are reshaping our world right now: racial justice and the response to the coronavirus.  

As the ILI approaches on September 17, I’m thinking again, as I did in college, about what I need to know to understand the world around me. I’m hoping that this year’s event gives us all a chance to reflect, connect, and act with one another in a time when we need it most. 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.