One of the great fears that parents and church leaders have about their youth engaging in interfaith dialog is that they will lose their connection to their own religion and will end up rejecting and leaving their faith, maybe even converting to another religion as a result. My experience as a Christian pastor has been just the opposite –I have watched young people become stronger in their own faith through exposure to other traditions.
Personal relationships matter a great deal in influencing how individuals come to faith, switch faiths or grow in faith. Most of us are part of the tradition of our parents and stay in a tradition that comes to us through the personal relationships in our home and our place of worship. High school students often deepen their faith because of a role model. College students often grow in faith because a person of faith was there for them during a time of pain. Young adults often stay with their faith because someone they admire is in the faith.
In encouraging people to stay in their faith, actions speak louder than words. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach always, use words if necessary” to convey the concept that we share our faith by what we do as well as by what we say. As a pastor I try to live the Gospel of Christ, who modeled how we are to live by his actions as well as by his words. Regardless of our tradition, the everyday personal interactions of people of faith have a great impact on others staying in their traditions.
When young people begin to look beyond their faith background to engage people of different faiths, personal interactions often cause them to consider their own tradition as never before. If we grow up in a world where everyone is similar, we too often think about faith in cultural terms without analyzing the doctrine itself. Interacting with people who are different can cause us to think more deeply about how our own identify is shaped and developed.
One of the benefits of interfaith dialog is that in order to explain our faith to others we must come to terms with what we actually believe, and that often brings us to a deeper place in our own faith. To explain one’s own faith requires synthesizing those parts of the faith that one believes in.
For example, Farah is a Sunni Muslim girl from rural Ohio. She attends a high school outside of Cleveland and is one of the few Muslims at her school. She is often asked what it is like being a Muslim. She says that in the process of engaging with non-Muslims and explaining her faith she has come to experience a deepening of her belief through her own reflection.
Sometimes conversations can cause people to develop a pride in their background that they did not have before. In college, I found that being one of a few from my region of the country meant that people often asked me what it was like to grow up there. I had assumed while growing up that everyone was like me. When I encountered people who were very different I began to think about my community in a new way. I developed a sense of pride. I saw myself as a representative of my state and region and it increased my feelings about, and loyalty to, my community. When we are engaged in conversation with people from others faiths we learn about ourselves and clarify our beliefs as we explain our religion and often we develop a sense of pride as a result.
A recent study by researchers in California and Canada found that older siblings often do better in school than younger ones because they end up tutoring their younger siblings. The process of tutoring helps the older students learn because they have to explain information to the younger ones. The researchers concluded that the key driver of success for those older students was the premise that humans learn by explaining.
I have seen, through interfaith dialog, that young people of many traditions who once did not care much about their religion before the dialog, suddenly become inspired by the commitments of others to return to the faith of their roots.
If parents and religious leaders want their young people to develop a faith that is deep in their tradition and broad in the world, they should encourage, not discourage, interfaith interactions. Faith that is tested, contrasted and explained is faith that is most likely to be internalized and to endure.
Rev. David Gray directs the Workforce and Family Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.