Leadership for a World of Religious Diversity

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Building Trust Makes True Engagement Possible

Tamara Cohen (RRC ’15) worked as an RRC Multifaith Intern in 2010-1l with Walking the Walk, a project of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia that brings high school students together across religious boundaries.

Walking the WalkIt's 12:47 am. I am lying on an air mattress on a classroom floor at the Academy of Notre Dame in suburban Philadelphia. Upstairs, twenty-two teenage girls half of whom are students here at Notre Dame and half students at the nearby Barrack Hebrew Academy, are giggling together as they quiet down for the night. I have been leading this group all year and tonight they taught me what interfaith work is really all about.

Earlier in the evening, we sat around a table and passed a basket with small pieces of colored paper. On them were printed questions that the girls had come up with, questions they felt that they had not yet dared to ask one another. One by one, with respect, genuine curiosity and courage, they reached into the basket, selected a question and entered into dialogue with one another. The questions were not easy ones.

Have you ever questioned the idea of someone dying and coming back to life?” “When you remember the Holocaust, do you remember non-Jewish victims as well?”Why do you get uncomfortable when we talk about Jesus?”Do you follow the rules of your religion because your parents raised you to or because you believe in them yourself?” And the answers were not pat: “For me Jesus isn’t a historical figure so it doesn’t matter what you learned in school, Jesus for me is the Messiah;” “I don’t like to hold grudges but if your grandfather was a Nazi, he could have killed my grandfather.”

The engagement was real, the listening was deep, and the learning and trust palpable. I saw how our year of building trust had made possible this moment of true engagement. I saw young adults struggling to find new ways to hold their own realities and belief systems and also make room in their hearts and minds for the realities and beliefs of others -- others who had now become their friends. After an hour and half of questions and answers we shared hot chocolate and doughnuts. The Jewish girls lead havdalah, the ceremony to end the Sabbath, and everyone breathed in the sweet spices. The Catholic girls took us on a midnight walk to the school’s rose garden where we visited their favorite statue of the Virgin Mary and listened to them recite “Hail Mary” in four languages.

On our way to bed, I looked up to the sky and out over the winding line of young women walking towards the building. I said my own prayer of gratitude for reaching this moment.

Tamara Cohen serves as an RRC Multifaith Intern through the generosity of the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

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