APYA Tries to Build Interfaith Community

When swastikas appeared on David Bloom’s predominantly Jewish dorm at Indiana University and someone threw rocks through the Chabad and Hillel houses, many students blamed the school’s small Muslim community.

And yet it was Bloom’s Muslim resident assistant who comforted him and his Jewish friends after the incident, and Muslim students who joined them in lighting the menorah at Hillel to “bring light to the darkness” afterward.

Police eventually arrested a non-Muslim faculty member for the crime.

“The community had no reason to [help us] but they did it because they were Muslim,” Bloom said. “That was a powerful experience that I think shaped a lot of what I do.”

Bloom, now studying to become a rabbi in Cincinnati, is the Jewish coordinator for the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults, a program at Chautauqua Institution that brings together four young leaders — one Jewish, one Christian and one each from branches of Shia and Sunni Islam — to foster interfaith dialogue for Chautauquans and young adults in particular. Their activities range from porch chats with the Interfaith Lecture speakers to Ismaili celebration to personality test workshops. The coordinators are Bloom, Christian coordinator Emily Peterson, Sunni Muslim coordinator Yasin Ahmed and Ismaili Muslim coordinator Safia Lakhani.

For all the fun events, the coordinators take their jobs intensely seriously. Asked why he thinks interfaith work is important, Ahmed, a student at Hartford Seminary, responded in a single sentence: “It’s the best way to change the world.”

Their work at Chautauqua is not simply about the Institution, he said, but rather something more global. It’s the nit and grit work of building an interfaith movement, one that is of critical importance today and will be in the coming decades, the coordinators said. The defining clash of the 21st century will be a religious clash between extremists and pluralists, Bloom said, quoting Eboo Patel, a member of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships and frequent Chautauqua speaker.

“What changes the world is beliefs, and if you can get people to believe in one cause, that’s how you build a consensus and a wave that changes the world,” Ahmed said.

Interfaith work is particularly important today to stop the rise of Islamophobia, said Peterson, a recent graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary. “Filters” such as Fox News are spreading false information about the religion, Peterson said, and the only way to truly to understand other communities is to talk and work with them.

“It’s dehumanizing when we don’t seek to get to know people for who they are,” Peterson said.

The coordinators said they’ve had insightful conversations with Chautauquans across faith lines. Porch chats with speakers have fostered intimate conversations, and the Muslim coordinators said they’ve received intense interest and thoughtful questions about Friday afternoon Jum’ah prayers.

Associate Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno said the department originally started the program with two Muslim coordinators because it was the least well-known among the three religions. The coordinators said having two Muslim coordinators in and of itself helps break the stream of misinformation. Lakhani said it shows that Islam is not homogenous, especially since Ismaili is an ancient sect that’s little known in the West. Having Shia and Sunni coordinators working together proves there isn’t a universal sectarian divide between the two branches of Islam.

“We’ve often been asked, if I come from a Shia branch and he comes from a Sunni, where’s the tension?” Lakhani said.

Ahmed finished the sentence: “And it’s in your perception, that’s what we tell them.”

Ahmed has made connections with Christian and Jewish religious leaders looking to do interfaith work. He can put them in touch with Muslim leaders in Hartford they would not otherwise work with, spawning interfaith connection well outside of the Institution gates.

“You can’t measure the impact of this place,” he said.

And yet, the coordinators have often found themselves frustrated by Chautauqua, particularly in the first few weeks of the summer. As 49 people were massacred on “Latin Night” in an Orlando gay nightclub, black men were shot by police officers and police officers were killed while protecting a peaceful protest, Lakhani questioned what the point of all the programming was.

“[It] made me ask, ‘Why isn’t the Chautauqua community doing more?’ ” she said. “How can we remain in this bubble, this utopia and listen though these lectures all day that talk about doing something, but everybody goes back home and eats dinner with their family and forgets about what’s happening?”

The other candidates echoed that critique and said it hasn’t gone away. But as they’ve spoken with more Chautauquans and gained a greater understanding of the work they do and the intellectual community within the Institution, they began framing the criticism in a different way: untapped potential. They starting asking how can Chautauquans take what they’ve learned and apply it directly to enacting change in the world.

To that end, they called up a soup kitchen, and on a recent Saturday, the four coordinators and one Chautauquan made 500 meals for students.

That effort not only provided hundreds of needy families with hot food, they said, but uniquely fostered interfaith dialogue.

“Action breaks stereotypes,” Bloom said. “When you go to a soup kitchen and make 500 meals and say, ‘I do it because I’m a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim,’ it’s a powerful statement because it’s backed up by action.”

In turn, they said it helps them fulfill their own faiths, as Christian, Judaism and Islam all command their adherents to care for the poor.

The coordinators are still brainstorming ways they can translate their intellectual discussions on the grounds into action; they want to make Chautauqua more accessible to those with fewer resources. Nevertheless, they’ve found a love for the Institution, a place where interfaith dialogue and intellectual discussions are alive as in few other places in the world. Nowhere else, Ahmed said, would he have that opportunity to live with a rabbi-in-training and work with a young Ismaili and Christian on impactful projects.

“What [Chautauqua is] doing is visionary, and I don’t think I’d have the opportunity elsewhere to do what we’re doing with this scale and scope and with this intensity,” Ahmed said.

Jason Mast

The author Jason Mast

Jason Mast covers the Interfaith Lecture Series, Mystic Heart Program and Abrahamic Program for Young Adults. Northwestern University class of ’18.