Category: From NU Students

Last week our dinner topic was “Jesus: The Man, The Myth, the Legend.” Since I am the person who often chooses the topics for our meetings I have to admit that I’m rarely caught off-guard by the direction a discussion goes but that Tuesday was different.

It was meant to be a discussion of Jesus across different faiths. In attendance that night we had Jewish students, Christian students, Muslim students, non-religious students and a Hare Krishna student. Even I was a bit surprised to learn that everyone had something to say about Jesus. And that something was uniformly positive.

I was shocked to discover that in the Quran, baby Jesus (pbuh) speaks to defend his mother’s chastity, announce his future importance and predict his resurrection. In the Christian tradition Mary’s chastity is announced and protected by the angel Gabriel whose message is then spread by her fiancé, Joseph. It seemed almost feminist to have the child whose legitimacy was in question defend his mother’s honor as opposed to her husband.

I then learned that in the Hare Krishna tradition Jesus is considered a great guru whose example should be followed. I didn’t know much about Hare Krishna’s before some of their members got involved with our initiative but am quickly coming to see that the goals of these students align very well with the goals of the Northwestern Interfaith Initiative and the IFYC’s Better Together Campaign.

And of course I got to provide insight I had from my bible studies and Christianity classes as to the Jesus I try to emulate in my life – the stories of the Sermon on the Mount (which many of the Muslims had never heard told before) and the story of Jesus’ insistence on pacifism even at the time of his arrest. While I don’t believe in Jesus’ divinity I do my best to live my life by his example in many ways. These stories are some of the big reasons I do interfaith work so it was nice to share them with the people I do that work with.

While I certainly can’t say I fully comprehend the entirety of Jesus: The Man, the Myth, the Legend I definitely think I benefited from hearing others’ descriptions of him.  I think something as big as Jesus requires a few second opinions and while you don’t have to accept every story you hear as truth, it certainly never hurts to expand your knowledge of what other’s believe and say.

Today’s post was written by Julianna Nunez. Juli is a Christian who spent her spring break on a Habitat for Humanity trip in Des Moines, Iowa. Her Jewish boyfriend, Martin, and atheist best friend, Susan, were also on the trip and in this post, Juli reflects on that experience.

I’ve learned that there are certain expectations that come with being the non-Jewish girlfriend of a Jewish boy. I better be a good cook and Martin, my boyfriend, wants his children to be raised Jewish. My interests in Judaism stem back to when I was 13 years old, so I had no qualms about that. However, this would mean that I would have to convert, which can be a very long process. Nonetheless, I love my boyfriend very much and I would consider my possible conversion as an example of my love for him as well as an alternate way to express my love for God.

Over spring break, some of my friends and I went to Des Moines, Iowa, to participate with Habitat for Humanity. The group, to my knowledge, consisted of Jews, Christians, and Atheists. The topic of religion did not come up. One of the group members, Susan, is an Atheist and can be considered my best friend at Northwestern University. We all participated in Habitat for Humanity because we felt it was the right thing to do, not because we felt a religious obligation.

It was nice to spend time with Martin in a non-academic environment. I learned that I have better motor skills than him (at least when it comes to destroying stuff with a hammer and handling power tools), I learned that he will not always respond to my flirty-ness, I learned that he goes to bed at an ungodly hour, and I learned he has all the patience in the world for me.

While our religions are different and we come from different areas (I come from a city while Martin comes from a suburb), we do not let these differences come between us. Instead, we learn from each other. I enjoy learning Judaism from Martin and Martin enjoys hearing my stories about growing up in an urban area.

We do not share a religion, but we share our love.

And of course, after deciding that the floor was far too uncomfortable to sleep on while in Iowa, we shared a giant red beanbag.

What ECO Means to Me

Today’s guest post is by Jennie van den Boogaard about ECO, a Hillel initiative to make the campus greener.

I grew up in a small town in Florida with a population of about 6,000. Half of those were conservative evangelical Christians, and the rest were agnostics, mostly surfer-stoners. There was little diversity, and I was the token Jew my entire life. I could have assimilated easily into my Christian surroundings. After all, it is the dominant culture of America. But for some reason, I latched on to what made me different and loved it. So when I came to Northwestern, I jumped at the chance to become involved with the Jewish community here, especially at Hillel, which I have found to be the most open and welcoming place on campus.

Hillel in general is like a second home for me on campus, but where I really found my place was in one of its student groups: ECO. ECO (Environmental Campus Outreach) is one of three main undergraduate ‘green’ groups on campus. ECO effortlessly combines the two things I love most: Judaism and environmentalism. Judaism is much more than a religion; it is a way of life. And I have been taught my entire life that if I am going to a responsible Jewish adult, then I need to take care of the world around me, not just people, but what I eat, what I do, and what I use. I plan to honor my ancestors, my culture, and my religion by always looking out for nature and my people, which doesn’t include just my fellow Jews, but all human beings.

ECO meets every Sunday at 1 PM at Hillel. We welcome people of all faiths or no faith, and half of our members are not Jewish. About a third of our efforts are aimed at making Hillel more sustainable physically and spiritually. Another third is to reach out to the whole student body and inspire Northwesterners to live a more sustainable life. And the last third is dedicated to our projects and initiatives, such as our campaign to reduce plastic bag consumption on campus, provide recycling for ink cartridges, batteries, CFLs, and plastic bags, and help to make the organic garden at Norris flourish.

If you’re interested in learning more you can go to or email me at

Islam and Doing Good!

Today’s guest post is by Aatifa Shareef, McSA’s Philanthropy Chair!

God says in the Qur’an, in Surah 2 (The Cow), Verse 83:

And [recall] when We took the covenant from the Children of Israel, [enjoining upon them], “Do not worship except God; and to parents do good and to relatives, orphans, and the needy. And speak to people good [words] and establish prayer and give zakah (almsgiving).” …

The idea of serving others is not some vague secular concept of doing things for others to make oneself feel good; it is an idea that is deeply rooted in at least the three Abrahamic faiths as emphasized by this verse in the Muslim’s Holy Book. It is an explicit commandment to help the needy and treat others with justice and kindness, and this commandment is on par with the command to establish prayer and give alms, two of the five pillars of Islam.

The concept of charity in Islam is broad. In a narration of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), he says, “Charity is prescribed for each descendant of Adam every day the sun rises.” He was then asked, “From what do we give charity every day?” The Prophet (pbuh) answered: “The doors of goodness are many…enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms–all of these are charity prescribed for you.” He also said: “Your smile for your brother is charity.”

This broad definition of charity is in line with the Muslim ideal of doing everything with perfection, or “ihsan”. In a Prophetic narration, a man comes to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) asking about ihsan. The Prophet (pbuh) responds, “It is though you should serve Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him, He still sees you.” This is true perfection.

In a Muslim’s life, actions are either in one of two categories: acts of worship, and acts that deal with others. Of course we must try to be perfect in our acts of worship, but most actions in one’s daily life fall in the latter category; thus, ihsan in dealing with others is of utmost importance. We must interact with the rest of humanity as if God were watching our every move. By being charitable by any means possible, we are employing ihsan in our dealings with others. As humans, regardless of faith, let’s all strive to perfect ourselves by being charitable in all acts of our lives.

Why I chose Humanistic Judaism

Miriam Mogilevsky or Маша Могилевская is a sophomore at Northwestern who considers herself to be a Humanistic Jew. Here she details her exploration of faith and Israel.

When I was a kid, I was absolutely convinced that God existed. I prayed all the time, in fact. Sometimes it was for the silly sorts of stuff that kids worry about; sometimes it was for things like having my parents come home safe and sound from a trip.

My parents come from the former Soviet Union, where religious expression of any kind was strongly discouraged. As a result, they were never religious or observant at all, so they were pretty surprised that I was. I encouraged them to light Shabbat candles and take me to the synagogue on Friday nights, and they bought me a children’s Bible and an encyclopedia about Judaism.

As a teenager, I began questioning things much more. I loved science and therefore had a lot of trouble taking the Bible at its word, but I was still open to the idea of being Jewish in a traditional way. The summer after my junior year of high school, however, everything changed.

My parents had encouraged me to go on a six-week program to Israel that involved scientific research, travel, Israel advocacy training, and religious education. The program billed itself as “pluralist” and accepted students of various denominations of Judaism, so I wasn’t worried that the religious aspect of it would be too much for me.

I turned out to be completely wrong. We were required to pray every morning and attend Shabbat services on both Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Although there were usually separate reform, conservative, and orthodox services, there definitely weren’t services for people like me who would’ve preferred to just sit and meditate. I found it a waste of time to spend 45 minutes each morning mumbling words that I didn’t believe in a language that I didn’t understand.

And, as much as I love Israel, it showed me a darker side of the Jewish faith that I would rather not have seen. I went to services where the men sat in front, singing and cheering, while the women sat behind a barrier in the back of the room, silently mouthing the prayers with mournful expressions on their faces. I listened as my friend told me about visiting the Western Wall, a very special place for all Jews, and being berated and shamed by the local women for wearing clothing that was deemed too revealing. I visited the home of an ultra-Orthodox man and sat at his dinner table as he led a discussion with my group and his wife and daughters stood silently behind him, bringing more food to the table when necessary. I heard on the news that members of Jerusalem’s religious community was fervently protesting the gay pride parade scheduled there. Ultimately, I realized that I personally could not believe in a God who would find any of this acceptable.

I still identify strongly as a Jew, but the branch of Judaism that I consider myself part of is called humanism. This type of Judaism emphasizes the dignity and right to self-determination of all people and focuses on celebrating Jewish culture and history without necessarily believing in a higher power. Services and leadership roles at humanistic congregations are open to anyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and even religious background.

There are many reasons to be proud of being Jewish. For instance, throughout history, Jews have faced incredible adversity but have always overcome it. The very structure of the Jewish faith emphasizes attaining an education and learning through discussions with others. Many Jewish teachings, especially the ones dealing with ethics and charity, still ring true for me. These things are all worth remembering and celebrating.

But ultimately, I want to have the freedom to determine the course of my own life. I want to eat whichever foods I like and spend my Saturdays doing whatever I want. Rather than blindly reciting words I can’t understand, I’d rather engage my spiritual side by meditating or listening to beautiful music. I want to believe that my worth as a person is determined by how I treat others and contribute to the world, not by how well I follow ancient rules. Most importantly, though, I want a belief system that doesn’t keep others from doing those things, too. That’s why I practice humanistic Judaism.

This guest post is by Sarah Sanders, a Weinberg junior who’s very committed to exploring the responsibilities of Christians to serve others as a religious duty. Today she writes about how no faith is complete without service.

Every spring break I go on an international mission trip with my campus ministry,
University Christian Ministry. Last year we went to Cuba to be involved with the outreach
projects of a church in Havana. The year before that we went to Guatemala to
explore and help teach at a K-12 school in Xela, Guatemala. Both times before I went,
people asked me why I was going and what we were going to do there. I surprisingly
found that at first I didn’t really have a good answer to either question. I love to travel,
I liked the idea of doing some sort of service work, and I liked the group of people.
Beyond that, I didn’t have a grasp on what was really drawing me toward this or any
other type of faith-related service.

After two years of this, I think I have finally partially figured it out.

Service. Most of the time that word brings up images of giving up time and money,
performing an act of charity, or reaching out to those less fortunate than us. It seems to
entail some sort of personal sacrifice. Of course at the end of the day, it always feels
great—to know that we acted for someone else on that day. To feel that focus shift is
refreshing, renewing, and hard to find in a lot of other places. But why do we do it? Why
do we engage in this act of reaching out? It seems like it might just be easier to sit back
and focus on our own lives before thinking of anyone else.

Faith. I think this is the part that often gets lost in the rush. How often do we step back
and ask ourselves why we’re doing service in the first place? I don’t think that faith is
necessarily the only reason that people want to help or try to change the world… But
for me, faith is the reason that I don’t view service as a once-in-awhile kind of thing
anymore. It’s the reason that I go to these places each spring break and become a part of
what people are doing there.

When we go on these mission trips, we’re not going to change people’s beliefs or even
to build or repair something tangible. We’re going to build something much more
important—relationships. We are there to learn about the work of people who understand
dedication to the world beyond themselves in the deepest way. We’re there to share ideas
and make connections with people in the name of the faith that inspires us to serve.
Service isn’t always a giant project or a monthly donation to a cause.

Service happens every day, every hour, every second you spend extending what you
believe to be God’s grace to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean trying to align
other people’s beliefs with your own—it means giving to others the gifts with which you
have been blessed. It doesn’t matter what you believe—the point is that the belief alone
is not enough. Service through faith is seeking to understand and connect with people
that share your goal of improving the world for others. Service through faith is a constant
striving to be selfless, even just through simple acts of grace each day.

Today’s guest post is about the links between serving your community and personal satisfaction by Joel Finbloom!

Friday night services at Hillel constantly remind me why it is that I love Judaism, and it reminds me why I’m motivated to serve my community. When I walk into Hillel on Friday, I greet my friends, and lament that sometimes Hillel is the only time during the week that I see them. After talking for a little while, it’s time to go upstairs for the services, and we sing and pray as a community, in Hebrew, the language of our ancestors and of the Torah (Judaism’s most holy scripture). What’s so wonderful about this service is not only the Hebrew language, but also the fact that all the people in the service, the cantor and the congregants,are singing songs of praise to God together. To pray with my closest friends is one of the most deeply meaningful acts of community I have experienced. It reinforces my belief that one of the most important aspects of religion is the community that it creates and fosters.

After services, a small sermon is given on a topic in the Torah. These sermons are particularly important to me and remind me of yet another aspect of Judaism: intellectual curiosity. To inquire about deeper meanings of the text, and to question and delve into my religion is wonderfully inspiring and allows to me constantly gain something new from Judaism. While the communal aspects of Judaism are fundamental, it is the intellectual curiosity that encourages me to return time and time again to study the Jewish texts.

While there are countless things about Judaism that inspire and motivate me, the two aspects of Community, and Intellectual Curiosity are what motivate me most to serve my Jewish community, both back home and at Northwestern. I hope that through serving in the community, I can help people connect to Judaism in their own way, and help foster their sense of community and intellectual curiosity.

To do this, I sometimes lead the services at Hillel, and will sometimes give the sermon after services. By actively leading the service, or the discussions on the Torah, I hope that people will be motivated to do the same, and in doing so, will create a strong community that is self-sustaining. I also participate, rather than lead, in various Torah discussions and in other learning opportunities at Hillel.

I must admit however, that it is not primarily for the purpose of others that I serve in the community, but rather for my own selfish reasons. I lead services not only because I want to inspire, but also because I want to be inspired. I don’t give the sermon just because I want to teach others, but because I want to force myself to learn Torah and delve into the deeper meaning of the text.

To serve the Jewish community is also to serve myself, and although this may sound selfish, I think
that that is the purpose of a strong religious community. To encourage growth and inspiration in others and in oneself.

Who reigns supreme?

Today’s guest post is by Dan Q. Tham. Dan is a Medill sophomore who identifies as Theravada. His post explores religion as identity and the possibility of projecting too much faith on charismatic leaders.

Somewhere in the endless conurbation of Southern California, my family sat down to a meatless meal. At this time, we had been vegetarian for about a year and, at the recommendation of my mom’s friend—a heavily made-up banshee named Co Hoa whose mischievous grandson Alex was always in tow—my mother, with her unflagging gusto for cruelty-free, had us eat at the Loving Hut. The campy name and the altar with lit incense at the door were the innocent hallmarks of a Buddhist food establishment. But I was to find out, much to my chagrin and at a time I hope against hope is not too late, that there is something sinister underpinning the rubbery fake meat, the ostentatious emphasis on Buddhism, and the caricaturized cows and chickens on the posters in the Loving Hut restaurant, word bubbles coming out of their smiling mouths saying things like “We Pray For Your Souls.”

All my life, I’ve been raised Buddhist. I never really knew what it meant. I still don’t, to a certain extent. For us, a family of Vietnamese immigrants, Buddhism was cultural. Buddhism was a tether, holding and sustaining us, connecting us with que huong, the motherland. Despite attending Catholic school for elementary school and growing up in a predominantly Mormon valley, I hung onto Buddhism, obstinately, because it made us unique in our suburban cookie cutter house. The incense sticks we solemnly stuck into our front lawn were our homage to our ancestors as well as a warning to wandering Mormon missionaries that implicitly said: not interested.

My mother was the force that championed Buddhism as a religion: worshipping a giant statue of Buddha at the local temple (a categorically un-Buddhist practice in my opinion) and muttering intonations at the family altar. My father was much more interested in Buddhism as a philosophy: acceptance that all of life is suffering and temporal, that nothing is permanent. Rather doom-and-gloom, but true nonetheless.

While my dad practiced daily meditation before dawn, sometimes in the form of Tai Chi on our driveway, no doubt scaring the neighbors, my mother went from spiritual practice to spiritual practice. First it was Feng Shui and she made us shift all of our beds to face more auspicious directions. Next it was a brand of Zen Buddhism, wherein she would practice an austere meditative routine. When that got boring, she ventured into a less static yogic practice. Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, an audience with the Dalai Lama, a pilgrimage to India and Nepal. My mother figured it would all connect somehow and create meaning in her life. My brother and I, boys after our father’s heart, knew these were just phases.

Now my mom is in a phase I’m afraid she won’t leave.

I asked her, “Mom, if you met Supreme Master Ching Hai, what would you say to her?”

“I love you,” my mom said without hesitation.

This Supreme Master Ching Hai is the overlord of the Loving Hut brand. She preaches a militant, elite brand of veganism, arguing that her followers are saving the world. She was born in northern Vietnam, trained as a Buddhist nun in Taiwan, and, for some unaccountable reason, she eventually shed the draconian garb, appearance and lifestyle. She grew out her hair (which she dyed a Lady Gaga yellow-blonde) and formed an empire of 20,000 (mostly Vietnamese immigrants), a cult, my dad thinks, based on a meditation method she “developed” called Quan Yin. It involves a strictly meatless diet and generous donations from her supporters. She has a luxurious mansion in Nice, Italy. She sells her paintings and jewelry for obscene amounts. She is alleged to have sold her own bathwater. One lucky Supreme Master Ching Hai follower got to drink it. She has my mom’s loyalty. And my utter disdain.

I don’t have much experience with cults, but I’m afraid I will get some if my mom keeps following this. Ching Hai claims to fuse Christianity with Buddhism with her own personal dogma of immediate enlightenment. “Say my name and you will be immediately enlightened” is more or less her platform.

I wonder what the line is between a religion and a cult. The discovery of my mom’s profound interest in the Supreme Master has led me to question why I am vegetarian, why I am Buddhist, and why my mom cried when my dad and I tried to have a discussion about her newfound beliefs. Unless it’s the tears that are concomitant with a departure for college or new places or a loss in the family, I never want to see my mom cry.

Sometimes I can understand where my mom is coming from. Everyone wants meaning in his or her life. Even atheists and agnostics. I don’t think religion is the only way that you can get that. But it’s a convenient and often rewarding way. With Buddhism being as amorphous as it is, in the sense that it is not so regimented or 100% ritual-based (so much of it requires one to reflect on oneself, a trying and tiring task), I can understand the appeal of a woman with a similar Vietnamese background now living a lavish lifestyle saying to you that you can achieve enlightenment right now by eating at my restaurant chain, buying my crafts, and hanging up a giant portrait of me in your home (a step my mother has thankfully not taken, yet).

I’m reminded of the old Catholic indulgences by all of this: buying your way out of purgatory, buying immediate enlightenment. We all want things to be easy, fast, and painless, especially our faith. But is drinking a cult leader’s bathwater really the price to pay? In some ways, I’m just like my mom and I could never be like my dad, utterly content with the teachings of Buddha. Like my mom did before she found Supreme Master Ching Hai, I’m still exploring different spiritual practices and it is that exploration that will give me greater appreciation of my own spiritual upbringing. I want my mom to start exploring again.

LGBT + Faith

So, as some readers may know there is going to be an interfaith panel about faith and LGBT issues/identity on campus this Thursday at 8pm in University Hall 101. The panel will feature different campus clergy members and LGBTQ students. The panel, combined with the recent rash of gay suicides and the explosion of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project makes these two posts very timely. These posts were not written to be in dialogue with each other but I think they pose two interesting viewpoints that compliment each other well. I really wanted to present these side by side but try as I might I can’t figure out how to get columns into WordPress. This first post comes from Derrick Clifton, a gay Christian who helped organize Thursday’s panel.The second post comes from Megan Berry, a married, heterosexual grad student and member of Cru. Her post is about the role she thinks Christians should play in accepting and helping LGBTQ people.  Both posts are truly phenomenal and I want to make sure they get equal attention even though I can’t give them equal prominence on the page!

LGBT + FAITH = Bleeding Love by Derrick Clifton, Programming Co-Chair for Rainbow Alliance

“Closed off from love, I didn’t need the pain. Once or twice was enough and it was all in vain. Time starts to pass – before you know it, you’re frozen…” “Bleeding Love”, Leona Lewis’s ever popular ballad, vividly describes the realities for LGBT persons in various faith traditions. As an openly gay Black male who spent many years reconciling his Christian faith and sexuality, I know this progression of feelings all too well…

Many queer folks feel closed off from their religious communities because they suffer persecution and, as a result, painfully internalize anti-LGBT sentiments. Some try to continue reaching out a few more times, only to be disappointed in the negativity they encounter. And, for a number of us, the experience is so exasperating that we cease participating in our faith traditions. We become frozen.

This experience is the reason why, with a coalition of allies at Northwestern and within its religious communities, I sought to organize Thursday evening’s “LGBT + FAITH” panel discussion. With queer youth suicides being reported in the media at an alarming rate, HIV on the rise again, and couples still struggling to have their non-hetero unions legally recognized, many in my communities, especially the religious community and LGBTs, should receive the message of the panel: queer diversity in religious traditions is something to be celebrated and embraced. You might hear that statement and ask me, “why?”

The reason why unfortunate events like these happen is a result from one thing: lack of love. For the queer youth suicides, the many new HIV infections and the marriage equality movement, that lack of love from others often comes from discrimination and persecution, much of which comes out of the mouth of the Religious Right and other “fundamentalist” leaders of various religious traditions. And, quite frankly, I have a problem with those hate mongering hypocrites being called fundamentalists, because their words and actions are not based in the true fundamentals of their religion.

Last I checked, to be fundamental means to be an essential component; there’s nothing fundamental about ideals and teachings based in societal bigotry and not scripture or advanced theological inquiry. In essence, love is at the root of every religious tradition and to not teach others to love unconditionally means to fail yourself and your faith community at large. It is for this reason why religion gets such a bad rap these days, especially when the queer community has many allies in faith traditions willing to advocate for change.

The participating religious leaders on campus, who I applaud for so graciously donating their time to the “LGBT + FAITH” panel, expressly didn’t want to debate about whether or not it is consistent to be LGBT and have a faith tradition. In fact, they are participating to foster the understanding that LGBTs are to be embraced and affirmed – and so that many of our community members that are hurting or have been hurt as the result of religious persecution can benefit from a discussion that fosters spiritual healing.

No matter how often I’ve ran away from religious communities feeling isolated because of the negative, false judgment and uncharitable attitudes, the love of my Creator and experiencing that love with other people who celebrate and affirm my identity cuts me open and I “keep bleeding, keep keep bleeding love.”

Author’s Note: The LGBT + FAITH panel will take place Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 8pm in University Hall 101 and is part of the Religion and Sexuality Panel Series presented by Rainbow Alliance and the Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE), in co-sponsorship with The Office of the University Chaplains, Sheil Catholic Center, University Christian Ministry and the LGBT Resource Center.

Love, Christianity, and Homosexuality – Megan Berry

Although I grew up Catholic and have been involved in Christian fellowships for many years, I have always sought to challenge my faith by asking the “tough questions.” One area where I find it difficult to accept the doctrine of my faith is in the area of homosexuality. As a child I perceived that Catholics did not approve of homosexuality but couldn’t understand specifically why that was so. I knew that relationships between a man and woman were considered normal, but how did that make relationships between two men, or two women, inherently wrong? Going back to the Sunday school cliché “God is love”, and after much thought and prayer, I decided that I did not believe that God would hate or punish any two people simply for loving each other. Even as a young teenager I knew the world was filled with hate, suffering, and pain. If two people decided to care for each other, stand by each other, and live their lives together, I couldn’t see how this could be considered a bad thing, let alone a sin.

As I grew up I felt that this belief has been affirmed by the many wonderful and caring gay and lesbian people that I have either met or become friends with. As a religious person it has often been humbling to see how much my acceptance of their sexuality meant to them. At the same time I have learned not to share this view too often within my faith groups, the mere mention raises a lot of unhappiness and invariably starts a heated discussion. People offer their well laid out arguments, their scripture passages, even their prayers, hoping that I will understand that homosexuality is a sin. I pray about the issue and consider the arguments, but in the end it’s just not in my heart to view homosexuality as anything more than an expression of love between two people, an expression which is not inherently sinful.

I bring up the issue of homosexuality not because I desire to argue my point or even start any argument at all. I bring it up because it’s an issue that few people in the religious community wish to discuss, but one on which religious opinion is often loud and markedly negative. Recently the news has been filled with incredibly sad stories of homosexual young adults and teenagers who have taken their own lives. National reaction to these stories has brought attention to the role that religion plays in establishing cultural views about homosexuality. As members of a variety of faith groups, and as individuals dedicated to the idea of respect between groups of differing beliefs, now may be a good time to look at the issue of homosexuality as it relates to religion and faith.

A national survey was released this week from the Public Religion Research Institute, which asked 1,017 Americans their views on religion and homosexuality between October 14 and 17. The study found that 40% of those surveyed said that church messages about gay people are negative, and about the same percent said that those messages contribute “a lot” to a negative perception of gay and lesbian people. The survey also found that two out of three Americans believe gay people commit suicide at least partly because of messages coming out of churches and other places of worship.

The first thing that strikes me, about both the recent suicides and about the resulting survey, is that the messages from the religious community seem to be doing real harm to gays and lesbians both as individuals and as a community. The positive side is that even people who do not belong to a faith group are listening to the messages that come out of our churches. The negative side is that we may need to be more careful about the messages that we are focusing on. I do not think that passing judgments on the behavior of others, especially non-members, should hold a place of focus within any faith group. If we fixate on judging other faith groups, or on judging individuals outside of faith groups, we stray away from the more important goals of having strong faith communities, worshiping according to our faiths, and fostering mutual respect between all faith groups. Religious individuals may not change their attitudes towards gay or lesbian people, but they can acknowledge that it is their personal belief and not a universal truth. They can choose not to fixate on messages which are primarily negative and potentially damaging to others. This is a change in mindset that does not just apply to homosexuality and is important for the newest to the most senior members of every faith group. But one which, I believe would benefit not only individual faith groups but also the relationships between all different groups of people, both religious and non-religious.

While this ideal is in keeping with the goals of an interfaith community based on mutual respect, I will mainly focus on the homosexual community as a specific example of a group with whom tolerance and mutual respect could be greatly improved.  The reason for the fixation on homosexuality by many faith groups has never been totally clear to me. Why do many faith groups not only not reach out to homosexuals, but even espouse a negative and condemning message about them? These churches and faith groups are often the same ones reaching out to other marginalized groups in society (convicted prisoners, the homeless, drug addicts) with the message of God’s love and an offer of salvation. Why does homosexuality cause such a breakdown in this message? Would it ever be possible for faith groups to reach out to homosexuals and if so what would it look like?

My frustration with excluding gay and lesbian people from faith groups is that many of them truly desire to have a relationship with God and to be a part of a faith community. Some are even born into faith communities from which they struggle to hide their sexuality or they are excluded from when they are open about their sexuality. Although homosexual individuals may certainly seek a personal relationship with God, most would agree that having a supportive faith group is instrumental in pursuing that relationship during difficult times in your life. It makes me so sad to think that the fellowship of a faith group is denied to anyone who wholeheartedly desires it.

I do not feel that it is my right to deny that to anyone. Nor is it my place to withhold sharing my faith or my friendship with a gay or lesbian person. While I live, I want to share my faith with any person who wishes to learn about it and I want to learn as much from others as I can. I want to focus on the beliefs and aspirations which are shared and which bind us together. I want to increase the amount of love, respect, and joy in the world, and not add to the hate, suffering, and sadness.

If you’ve read this far you’re probably experiencing some strong emotions of your own and thinking of what you may have been taught or heard about homosexuality from your own faith group. Those strong convictions and emotions make it clear why homosexuality is such a difficult topic within faith groups. Yet in a truly interfaith community, individuals with vastly different definitions of “sin” co-exist with mutual respect and acceptance. In a truly interfaith community, individuals celebrate differences as well as similarities and focus on messages which are positive and strengthening for all groups both religious and non-religious. I hope that as we come together to encourage interfaith community we can also apply that message of mutual respect and tolerance towards other people in our lives.

You can read more about the survey by clicking here.

Today’s post comes from my friend Hana Suckstorff. Hana is a Weinberg senior who’s a peer minister with the University Christian Ministry and was an intern with the Interfaith Youth Core. You can find Hana’s column, which is mostly on religion and politics in America in the Daily Northwestern. Today, Hana writes about the Christian calling to be a bridge-builder and peacemaker.

The word “interfaith” frightens off a fair number of people.  Some think that interactions with people of other faiths will weaken their own religious identities, while others fear that any interreligious activity that isn’t focused solely on conversion will compromise deeply held exclusive truth claims. Personally, I have never worried about either possibility.  While I do not feel the obligation to proselytize as strongly as some other Christians might, I see in interfaith work a fantastic platform for developing the kind of close personal relationships needed for effective witnessing, not to mention something constructive gets done in the process.

With regard to the first concern, the diversity of my hometown pretty much ensured that I’d have to be comfortable dealing with different religious perspectives if I wanted to maintain my own Christian identity.  Since we attended church in a different town, none of my high school friends went to church with me, nor for that matter were they uniformly Christian.  I remember being slightly flummoxed once in eighth grade when a friend of mine, who I knew had been raised Catholic, invited me to a Beltane celebration.   While I had no interest in such festivities, I knew the offer had been made out of a spirit of kindness and hospitality, so I politely declined and shook off my shock that druidic rites were still practiced in suburbia.

It’s that same spirit of welcome, of openness and inclusion, which lies at the heart of my own faith and which compels me to seek out constructive interfaith activity.  Genesis says that God created man in His own image—not just Christians, but all people, regardless of religious persuasion.   The Bible also tells me that as a Christian I am called to work toward peace and understanding in the world.  That means engaging not only those who come from my own faith background, but all other children of God, no matter how greatly their spiritual perspectives may differ from mine.

While my more abstract understanding of God’s love inspires my desire to work cooperatively with people of other faiths, my experience with interfaith work sustains that wish.  In high school I interviewed a Hindu woman from the local temple about Diwali, a Hindu holiday, for an article for the school paper.   As she patiently answered my elementary questions and explained that the lights of Diwali symbolized the triumph of good over evil, I thought back instantly to the Christian celebration of light, Advent, when we frequently read John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Her faith commitment reminded me of my own.  The palpable warmth with which she spoke to me embodied the very love, which I believe God calls me to exhibit.  While her convictions were firmly Hindu, she was challenging me to be a better Christian by showing me what Christian love looked like.

In marked contrast to those who worry that interfaith work waters down an individual’s distinct religious faith, I have found that such work strengthens my faith.  Interfaith work is, for me, a duty of faith and something which sustains it.  And it reminds me, always, that everyone in this world, from my druidic friend to my Hindu interviewee to you and me, is made in the image of God.