At the Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago – Niha Shamsi

From August 2 to 4, I attended the Interfaith Youth Core’s Leadership Institute in Chicago on behalf of the CRGC. I found myself surrounded by hundreds of fellow students who all came to the Institute to figure out what achieving religious pluralism could mean. It was an eye-opening experience! The Institute began with Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel delivering a powerful keynote in which he emphasized the idea of a potluck, where every community brings their distinct beliefs to the table, as metaphor for interfaith dialogue.

For portions of the Institute, I chose a track called “Drawing Others into Religious Pluralism.” Here, coaches challenged participants to address disagreements amongst one another in a respectful manner. One moment that really stuck out to me during the sessions was our discussion of the statement, “empathy is not endorsement.”  I learned that a key to discussing differences with one another is to understand where the other person is coming from. Opposing viewpoints are often inevitable, and with the world increasingly becoming more diverse, we need to be more cognizant of others’ backgrounds and learn from each other in order to avoid conflicts.

Another activity that I enjoyed surrounded the skill of listening. We were asked to listen to somebody talk in our small groups for three minutes straight without interrupting them. This activity highlighted the power of being present, engaged, and letting people speak their minds to evade misunderstanding. Listening to one another is a critical, yet often overlooked, skill, and I am thankful I had the opportunity to enhance my listening abilities.

My favorite portion of the Leadership Institute was the “Unconference” session on day two, when I was able to go to different affinity groups based on what I most identified with or what I was interested in discussing more about. I really liked that the tables weren’t exclusively dedicated to faith groups, but gave us a chance to discuss how mental health, environmentalism, LGBTQ+, and politics intersect with interfaith topics. During this session, I interacted with individuals from vastly different backgrounds and learned about their diverse and sometimes complicated spiritual journeys. Furthermore, hearing personal stories from inspirational speakers at the conference made me aware of the multitude of ways interfaith leaders interact with their communities. It opened my eyes to the fact that, with the proper drive and dedication, anyone can be an interfaith leader and a catalyst for change in their communities.

Reflecting on the weekend, the Institute provided me the space to grow my passion for interfaith collaboration in the midst of many wonderfully open-minded people. Everybody has a voice, but what matters the most is how one utilizes it. I left Chicago with a deeper passion towards spreading interfaith dialogue and a desire to bring all that I learned back to Madison. I am so honored for having been able to attend this event, and I cannot wait for what the year holds!

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