I was interviewed for an episode of the “In Times Like These” podcast, which is run by the most excellent Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes at Claremont Lincoln University. You can listen to the recording here.
This article was originally published at Sojourners.
When it comes to refugees, our country seems to be torn between a desire to open our arms and hearts and a desire to be safe from all harm — as if those fleeing war are really just aggressors themselves, waiting to spring a vicious trap.
Xenophobia? Sure. Islamophobia? Double sure.
But there’s another scary idea at play: Refugees are an existential threat because they force us to confront the inconvenience of radical compassion.
Refugees arrive in our land with little more than the clothes on their backs, struggling against language and cultural barriers. Some of them are physicists and doctors and university professors, now scrubbing dishes or emptying bedpans in nursing homes to make ends meet. And while giving thanks for their own resettlement, many help the next group of new arrivals and work to strengthen their adopted communities with a humility that perhaps only fleeing war can bestow.
Their generosity brings to mind Luke 18:22, when Jesus said, paraphrasing, “None of this temporal stuff matters. Please sell everything you own and use the money to care for the poor and disadvantaged. You’ll be fine, because this is what God is really concerned about.”
Refugees shame us by throwing into stark contrast the real division between “haves” and “have-nots,” and our responsibility to the latter.
This is a consistent tension in our belief systems.
The Old Testament mentions caring for the stranger, no fewer than 36 times, because “You were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” The New Testament is chock-full of more exhortations to the same. Set your search engines to Exodus 22:21, Deuteronomy 10:19, Matthew 5:1, Leviticus 19:33, Deuteronomy 27:19, Matthew 25:25, 1 Corinthians 12:12, Galatians 5:14, or Luke 10:29.
The Quran is likewise insistent upon showing compassion for those displaced by war or disaster. Similar searches of Sikh and Hindu and Buddhist and Wiccan and Secular Humanist texts will reveal the same message: Be a radical welcomer, because that is what humans need to do.
This kind of compassion is part of our national civic-religious-ethical fabric, but that doesn’t make actually doing it any easier. For Christians, refugees force our eyes up the cross until we find the broken body of another Middle Easterner, crying and bleeding, and yet still forgiving those who trespassed against him.
And that can cause us to lash out against our own shortcomings.
If my fellow Christians were honest about the deep shame that we feel when we don’t live up to the example of Jesus, we wouldn’t need to convert that shame to loathing and heap it upon those whose only sin was being born in a part of the world where violent men wield weapons of war against civilians.
This past Sunday, I hoped in my heart of hearts that my priest would spit fire about Catholics’ obligations toward refugees — especially of the Muslim kind — as we Catholics were once similarly despised in America. Instead, he focused on the value of humility — of clearly recognizing that sic transit gloria mundi, “thus passes the glory of the world.”
Luckily, in addition to the gospel reading of the Beatitudes, our second reading was from 1 Corinthians 1:26, which, among other things, says, “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.”
Refugees threaten to reduce us to a holy nothing. In so doing, they free us from our own selfish pursuits. And that is scary.
I took Interfaith Youth Core up on their challenge for Better Together Day on April 14th and reached out to others of faith or philosophical tradition to have a conversation about what they believe and what values inspire them to do good in the world. I did this because I believe that when it comes to religion, we’re too often told that our differences define us. I’m for fixing that. Join me.
I’m a Catholic. For the past decade, in my work as an interfaith leader and through my job at Islamic Networks Group, I’ve been lucky to meet a huge variety of non-Catholics. I’m talking denominations and sects and sub-sects and sub-sub-sects of faiths from all around the world, and even a few who believe that they are from another planet. Many of these interactions have been casual, unremarkable even, but on occasion, I’ve found myself challenging my own stereotypes and misperceptions about other faiths.
A long time ago, I thought that Muslims were dangerous (usually Arab) villains. Movies, television, and my rural milieu all seemed to suggest that they were a violent “other” to be feared. After a few visits to my local mosque, hundreds of handshakes, and a great many gigantic meals, I’ve found that Muslims are indeed dangerous, but only to my waistline. Otherwise, they are just like me in most ways. My contact with them has prompted theological soul-searching more than once, and my old prejudices have disappeared in the face of generosity, compassion, and laughter.
It’s intuitive that interacting with unfamiliar people can head off stereotypes and contribute to better understanding between disparate groups, but in our religiously turbulent landscape, it bears repeating.
An example: To my knowledge, I’ve never met anyone from Georgia — the Caucasus one, not the American South one— so my understanding of what Georgians are like is a bit lacking. I know a little bit about the country’s history, I find their script fascinating, and I have enjoyed at least two separate Georgian wines. Academically and alcoholically, I am not unfamiliar.
Fortunately, I am not aware of Georgian stereotypes, either. If a friend said that I was “…as quick as a Tbilisi dessert,” I would check them for signs of stroke. Perhaps I’m lucky; I’m sure that there are many people like me, un-Georgianed, who have a very low opinion of the Caucasians. I’m looking at you, Russia. But imagine that I sit down and share a meal with a Georgian, or work with one (or more) of them to clean up a local park. As long as we don’t spend the time bickering about what fork/rake to use, I’d guess that by the end of the interaction, I’d have a generally positive impression of Georgians. They will be personalized in my mind as normal, nice humans. If, during that conversation, I find out that Georgians don’t even eat dessert, I’ll know that my friend was essentially praising my speed, and I’ll be enriched by the knowledge.*
Personal experience with people outside our immediate sphere of knowledge can be transformative. In psychological terms, it’s called the “contact hypothesis,”or “intergroup contact theory.” The US Army experienced it in the post-World War II era when the Armed Forces began to formally desegregate its units. The Army found that sixty-two percent of the soldiers in white-only units said they would dislike the idea of serving with black soldiers. Yet within semi-integrated units, white soldiers who already served with black soldiers reported only 7% dissatisfaction with the arrangement. These findings helped convince the rest of the Armed Forces that desegregation would not, as some believed, be a horrifying experience for white soldiers.
Researchers have noticed the same phenomenon elsewhere. Michael Savelkoul and his team in the Netherlands found that non-Muslim Dutch people were more likely to regard Muslims positively if they lived near or worked with said Muslims. A Zogby poll from 2014 shows the same effect in the United States: 36 percent of those who said they knew a Muslim viewed Muslims and Islam favorably, as opposed to only 19 percent of those who did not know any Muslims.
What’s the lesson here? How do we mend the divides between the world’s faith traditions? I think it comes down to three steps.
- Meet someone of a different religious or non-religious background.
- Talk about something that inspires them.
- Share the experience with those around you.
Easy, right? If you don’t know much about, or are slightly afraid of, Muslims or Baha’is or Mormons or non-theists or Deists or Sufis, the best way to figure them out is to talk to them. This is not rocket science, people. We do it all the time when the stakes aren’t high at all: asking the mail carrier about their day, chatting up the cute person for one reason or another, etc. We have a notion that it’s incredibly weird to talk about one’s religion or philosophy, but consider how many aspects of our lives are profoundly shaped by our deepest beliefs. In the religiously complicated world that we live in, the stakes can be immensely high; it behooves us to talk about our differences and similarities.
Aside from healing some of our planet’s ills, such dialogue can also be personally transformative. I have no idea where I would be on my faith journey if not for years of long, passionate discussions with adherents of religions not my own. My Muslim conversation partners have expanded my understanding of the place and importance of God. Hindu friends have helped explain cosmologically imperative notions of personal duty. Atheists have helped me sharpen my views on…basically everything faith-related (they ask a lot of questions). And Evangelical Christians wildly more conservative than I could ever hope to be have sounded suspiciously close to very liberal Christians when they show me the radical side(s) of Jesus, and how compassion can change the world. Countless other religious people have helped me articulate both what I believe and what I don’t believe.
If there’s one thing that the world’s faith traditions can agree upon, it’s that our faith journey is never really complete. There’s no end-point, just a constant work-in-progress; a slow, clumsy, plodding walk towards our ultimate visions. Learning about the beliefs of others helps us understand our own beliefs; we walk a little faster, a little straighter, a little more up-right. I plan to keep learning from others until we’re all running together in the same direction, arms locked, singing whatever praises we happen to sing, doing good deeds along the way. I imagine that it’ll look a lot like Better Together Day.
So get out there, cross a religious line, get to know a non-WhateverYouAre. Talk about the weather. Complain about the weather. Chat about the Chicago Cubs’ chances for a national championship, which could very well involve a discussion about whether there truly is a god. Share a pastry or five. Learn how to be better together. Talk to a human; build understanding, and combat ignorance.
*If Georgians truly don’t eat dessert, however, I might very well find it hard to trust them. Who doesn’t like dessert?
They even used my crazy beardo pic. Awesome.
In case you missed the other posts in the series, I traveled to Italy in June at the behest of the United States Department of State to present a series of lectures about interreligious dialogue, social media, and immigration/integration on the Italian peninsula. It was an incredible tour. The kind fellows at Televisionet.TV even produced a short video (pretty groovy) at one of my stops. I sat down for a quick interview with Andrew Crocioni from Pubblicita Italia magazine. Little did I know, my bearded mug would soon grace the glossy pages of a major Italian publication. Here’s a shot of the spread (only a few pages away from the cover story about Edward Norton):
I asked Mr. Crocioni for a transcript, which arrived promptly (in Italian), so what follows is the best translation that I could muster. My thanks go out to Andrea and the great crew at Pubblicita Italia for putting this together and making me feel like a really glamorous international star. Read on, friends:
The good side of social [media]
by: Andrea Crocioni
Summary: An interfaith activist and expert on American digital networks, for years Tim Brauhn has been committed to promoting social use of the Internet, convinced that a multiethnic and multicultural society functions only if a dialogue is established between its various components. But can this process really be accelerated thanks to the ‘shortcut’ technology of social media? We talked with him as a guest of the Milan Italo-Moroccan Youth Group.
Blue call-out box: “You have to build a narrative about something shared, a common theme, regardless of the personal past of each person/community.”
Blue call-out box: “Young people can play a crucial role as a bridge between different cultures.”
“Today, social integration also occurs through the intelligent use of technology,” says Tim Brauhn, interfaith activist and expert on American digital networks. He is in Italy as a guest of the Milan Italo-Moroccan Youth Group (CGIM) and the U.S. Embassy in Italy for a number of seminars. A vegetarian, cyclist, big tea drinker, Tim looks like a tireless globetrotter and promoter of the social use of digital networks. He’s an expert in interreligious dialogue and is the Director of Operations for The 1010 Project, a humanitarian agency in Denver, Colorado.
He spoke of recognizing the way that the Catholic minority in the United States was treated (poorly) by the Protestant majority in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Brauhn (himself a Catholic) recognized the discrimination against Muslim communities and other religious minorities in his country, the same ‘ghettoization’ that had happened to his community in the early decades of the last century. It must be remembered, in fact, that some anti-immigrant movements, such as the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan, were also deeply anti-Catholic. Hence his commitment to promoting dialogue and peaceful coexistence between members of different religious faiths. “The most important thing,” says Tim Brauhn, “is to connect people around an idea ‘typical’ of the community, in the broadest sense of the term. You have to build a narrative about something shared, a common theme, regardless of the personal past of each person/community. Also, I think it is import to bring your message to the people wherever they are located, and not vice versa so that both people to come to you.”
According to the American aid worker, therefore, you need to put things on the ‘table’ that can unite, rather than focusing on the differences. “Dialogue can take a variety of forms: questions related to shared values which I mentioned earlier, the cultural elements that are present in the country for a long time, but also on other topical issues that unite us, such as the debt crisis or themes that we know well: environmentalism, road safety … topics on which we all want to have our say, as part of a community. In this context, young people can play a crucial role as a bridge between different cultures.” said Brauhn. In all this technology proves to be not only an amplifier, but an accelerator of the messages. Just think of the Arab Spring that saw the network become the protagonist of the political revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. Seems more complex, however, to be able to use social networks to build a constructive dialogue between different cultural and religious communities on a daily basis. “We must all become the storyteller,” says Brauhn. “Today we have new tools, just think of how they have changed our lives, like Twitter or Facebook, but behind it all there are always stories. We have news, events, feelings, to communicate with new media, but at the center is the narrative, the real driving force able to mobilize the people.”
From this activist American, then, comes a message of hope for the future, even if behind the incredible flow of information that pass through the web and social networks are hidden also many pitfalls. Online we can move virtually without filters, including hundreds of millions of blogs and multimedia content of all sorts are uploaded constantly. YouTube adds over 60 hours of new video every minute, for instance.
“The social networking tools at our disposal facilitate relations between individuals, but in parallel make it easier to transmit negative messages, racist or xenophobic – precisely – for this to be used with a sense of responsibility. Today it is easy to tell a lie, but sooner or later the lie is bound to be discovered, because the network has its own antibodies. The web is a space where you can verify the information in a few minutes. So I say that there can not be limited to passive users, but please be scrupulous in their search for information and checking them.” But in this process of democratization the benefits are still above the critical issues. “Social media has transformed the way journalists network, for instance.” says Brauhn “We went from monologue to dialogue. So when we come to the digital world it is essential to be honest and tell the truth, the only way to establish oneself and become a credible voice. Those who speak the truth will prevail over those who are purveyors of negative messages and discriminatory attitudes. The important thing is to never let these voices prevail, and to take steps to ensure that they remain ‘strangled’ in the great chorus of integration and civil society.”
Reblogged with permission from IFYC.org
On my recent speaking tour in Italy, I presented six lectures in eight days to NGO representatives, ethnic media journalists, and minority community leaders to discuss best practices for social web tools and movement-building in general. In an earlier post I wrote about some of the big conversations that I had with Italians, but now that I’m removed from the tour by a few weeks, I’ve ferreted out a few more reflections about what I saw and heard.
1. The extensive history/proliferation of civil society organizations (NGOs, regional/city nonprofits, etc.) in the United States is not mirrored in Italy, with the exception of faith-based institutions. The Catholic Church has done that heavy lifting for a while, apparently. American social sector development as of late has revolved around the buzzword “collaboration,” and this movement is gaining traction in Italy, too. Italian nonprofits are finding each other and working together. Organizations promoting dialogue and/or action with the “other” will have to struggle at first, but there is plenty of room to grow.
2. At times during Q&A sessions, my audiences were quite vocally frustrated with the glacial pace of reform in Italy. They described cases of personal and community discrimination. They heaped scorn upon Italian media for its complicity in promoting xenophobia, and wondered why other Italians weren’t interested in having simple dialogue with them. These conversations could just as easily have taken place in America. I felt that frustration, which seems a dominant undercurrent in young people globally. We’ve got all these tools and all of this intelligence and the capacity to network across vast distances to solve huge problems, but we’re held back by old (and generally white) men.
3. The Arab Spring offered a glimpse of these frustrated young people employing social media to organize, share, and connect. Let’s not forget the other examples of the powerful nexus of protest movements, youth, and social media: Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Colombia, England, China, and Occupy. The increase of social web density across the world will have an incredibly powerful impact on how we run future mass information campaigns. This is not only about “flattening” and democratizing media; I think that the real change zone will be bringing people together around issues of common concern. I spoke about this in a web video filmed during my last lecture in Milan. In a place like Egypt, for instance, which has clear minority and majority populations in terms of religion, class, and education, social tools allow people to promote a common cause (in this case, revolution) without having to agree personally on everything else. Digital coalitions, perhaps?
It’s like an analogy of interfaith work: We may not all have the same idea of what happens when we die, but we can certainly work together on the important things before then.
I was stunned at the readiness of the young Italians that I met. They won’t stop agitating for full representation and civil rights. They may have Moroccan or Senegalese or Romanian ancestry, but they are Italian through and through. I especially sensed (and observed firsthand) young Catholics’ eagerness to work with their fellow Italians across faith lines. The country’s de facto gerontocracy, and the frustration that young people feel as a result of it, has brought them together just as much as issues of civil rights. There is change in Italy’s future, and it will come from the second-generation children of immigrants.
Update: You can see some photos of me looking terrifying during the talk here, courtesy of Paolo Ricotti of Giornale dei Lavoratori.
I usually finish public presentations with a bit of an endorphin rush and energy for some hours afterward. It would appear that I’ve found a way to extend that feeling: consecutive translation from English to a foreign language.
I’m in Milan in northern Italy traveling as a Speaker and Specialist Grantee on behalf of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of International Information. Whew. I was summoned through my involvement with the Interfaith Youth Core‘s Alumni Speakers Bureau, and sure enough, I’ve already found myself talking quite a bit about interreligious dialogue.
My inaugural presentation on my inaugural day in Italy was held at the headquarters of ACLI (Christian Associations of Italian Workers), a network of organizations committed to work and social development like peacebuilding and entrepreneurship. My handlers from the US Consulate met me and walked me out to a local trattoria for a wonderful lunch. ACLI’s training department head was there, as well as a local imam (the funniest imam in Milan, as he was introduced to me), representatives from Yalla Italia, and some other consular staff. My recommendation: Check out Yalla Italia (with Google Translate installed). They are doing amazing work to publicize and connect the various immigrant communities in Italy. YI and its people totally rock.
I had some wonderful conversations at lunch (so much food) and on the walk to ACLI. As it was told to me, 12.5% of Italy’s GDP comes from businesses run by immigrants. That’s incredible. All the more incredible is Italy’s lack of useful or comprehensive immigration laws. Most immigrants aren’t citizens, which means that they can’t vote, which means that they can’t “elect their own”, which means that their representation stays nonexistent in the Parliament, which means that the immigration laws don’t change. Some of my meetings on this journey will focus on immigration reform and the messaging that goes along with it.
My presentation at ACLI was well-attended, with a wildly diverse audience: NGO folk, independent journalists, young and old people, and civic leaders. I talked a lot about storytelling and social narrative, pausing after every few sentences to wait for my amazing translator to catch up with me. The Q&A was twice as long as the presentation, which I view as a win. It felt that they “got it”.
I faced some tough questions, though, many about the frustration that organizations and individuals feel when using social networks and not seeing immediate return on their time investment. The density and penetration of the social tools that I take for granted in the US are different here. I had a blast, and as I mentioned earlier, I found that consecutive translation, aside from giving me a pause to gather my next (brilliant?) thought also extends the “speaker’s rush” that I feel. Part of my positivity comes from knowing that I’ve also learned a lot in a short period about the ways that the social web organizes people here. I’ll apply those learnings at my next meeting.
I leave in the morning for Rome and a non-stop schedule that will take me from there to Florence then back to Milan. Hopefully I will be able to check in like this after each meeting. Until then, ciao!
I grew up rural. That’s the important part of this story. I lived in a farming community about two hours west of Chicago. I was a Catholic; Catholicism was my received faith. Some of my friends were Catholics. The rest were from various Christian denominations. We didn’t talk about religion.
When I went to college in the suburbs, I fell away from the faith (I imagine that this happens to LOTS of college students) and continued on my way. Since I was finally in a place with a diversity of religious expression, I quickly realized that my views of other religions (especially Islam) were informed largely by my friends’ parents and their favored false information outlet: FOX News. The realization of my own ignorance pushed me to do some learning on my own…
During the Faiths Act Fellowship, I was hosted by Islamic Networks Group (ING), an educational organization that promotes religious literacy and mutual respect. When the Fellowship ended, I came on board as a consultant. One of the first projects that I wrapped my head around was a mobile app. The CEO wanted a mobile app focused on multifaith/interfaith happenings in the world. As we talked about features, the list of “things this app will do” grew and grew. And so, after months and months of research and development, ING is proud to present “FaithNews – Multifaith News and Events“, now available for free download at the App Store. Here’s the description that we use:
Did you ever want to wish your neighbor happy holidays, but weren’t sure when his or her religion has holidays or what to say? Have you ever blanked on the Hebrew word for charity? Are you planning a luncheon and need to know when Ramadan ends so you can feed your Muslim guests? Multifaith News and Events has all that and more.
It’s not simply a calendar of holy days, or a dictionary of important religious terms. This app comes with over 200 interesting facts – some trivial, some wildly important – about the five major world religions represented by ING’s Interfaith Speakers Bureau: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
The general concept for this app is to allow users to easily acquire daily news and information surrounding religion and interreligious issues.
- Daily aggregation of news articles on religious pluralism from several different news publications. Topics include religion in the workplace, religion and civil rights, 1st Amendment (freedom of religion) issues, etc.
- Multifaith calendar highlighting religious days of observance. Holidays will contain brief descriptions as well as links for more information.
- List of religious events and conferences around the country.
- Basic and often surprising facts about the world’s five major religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. For added interest, related facts will link to each other; for instance you can easily see how fasting works in both Judaism and Islam.
- Information about Islamic Networks Group and its educational programs.
I spent the last week of May in Chicago with the Faiths Act Fellows. For many, it was the first sight of each other since we parted ways back in September. Unfortunately, only 29 of the 30 Fellows were able to attend. Bilal Hassam, who was based in Leicester, UK, was detained in Montreal on his way into the US, a casualty of America’s homeland security theatre. Luckily, we were able to Skype him in for a few of our sessions!
We spent three jam-packed days at the offices of the Interfaith Youth Core, talking over the last eight months. Each pair of Fellows gave a short presentation – basically a highlight reel – of their work, and we talked very candidly about successes and failures. As a whole, the Fellowship raised around USD $140,000, which former Prime Minister Tony Blair will personally match. The money is going to Project Muso, Spread the Net, and Malaria No More US and UK. We had around 10,000 people come to our events and reached out to around 40,000 in total. We had 350 media pieces and trained dozens of new interfaith leaders.
Tony Blair himself interrupted a series of toasts we were giving each other to say how proud and excited he felt about us. We are his Fellows, really, and he’s always very eager to talk us up. He told us that what we did was new and trend-setting and most of all important.
It was a bittersweet three days in Chicago, though. The US Fellows are spread all over this huge country of ours, to say nothing of the distance to the UK. The Canadians are also widely dispersed. I might not see some of these people for a very long time, or ever again.
One of the unexpected byproducts of the last ten months of training and action has been the “gelling” of the Fellowship into more than a group of people brought together for a common purpose. We’ve shared trials, tribulations, and laughter, collaborated on national and international initiatives, and changed the map of interfaith work in just a few short months. These activists are my dear friends and allies.
Someday years from now, I will be asked to assemble a Dream Team of world-savers. The alumni of the Faiths Act Fellowship will be first on my phone tree. Thank you all for everything.
US Airways flight diverted after passenger “caught” praying.
How’s that for a headline? Let’s go with our gut reaction – it was a Muslim, wasn’t it?
Those lines are lifted from the news story. What kind of a person wraps straps around his head to pray? Jews, that’s who. Observe:
Yeah. A plane was diverted because the flight crew was concerned that a passenger was praying. As it turns out, Orthodox Jews wrap their arm with a black strap and tie a small box to their heads. The accoutrement is called tefillin, and it’s actually pretty cool. The box contains scripture verses, and the arrangement of the straps on the fingers actually looks like Hebrew letters.
Two important take-aways:
1. I’m sure that the young Jewish man’s response to the flight attendant was “I’m praying.” The tone was probably the same as it would be if I was asked why I was breathing air: “I need oxygen to live.” Such responses should be the end of conversations. Why on earth anybody would be worried about a 17-year-old boy wrapping a leather strap around his head is beyond me. Are we really that scared of the unknown?
2. The more important issue here is something that we refer to in the interfaith education sphere as religious literacy. Stephen Prothero addresses our shortcomings in his book by the same name (Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t). Americans are woefully ignorant of traditions not their own. An incident like the aforementioned “prayer alert” is evidence of this. Also germane to our social, theological, ecological, and political processes, we are woefully ignorant of our own traditions.
Religious literacy looks like a hot-button issue from the air. We are concerned about schooling people, especially young people, about religion in general because it rubs against our wall of separation between church and state. Maybe some of that friction is good – we’d stop having silly incidents like these.
Prayers have power, but they’re not a security issue. We should learn this.