Cindi Love, ACPA Executive Director
“Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?”
On September 10-11, 2015, I was invited to participate in President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge as one of the opening plenary presenters with Janina Montero, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at UCLA, Greg Jao, the Vice President & Director of Campus Engagement at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Eboo Patel, Founder and CEO of IFYC. Our topic was “Navigating Challenging Campus Conversations on Religious Identity and Diversity.”
The conversation was a response to the White House team’s recognition of a surge in campus conflicts around religious identity on campus – Israel/Palestine issues, all-comers policies, free speech issues and direct attacks on Jewish and Muslim students.
Our goal for the session was to encourage campus leaders from around the world to consider how they can engage with one another respectfully and positively – while maintaining disagreement with one another on critical issues.
We set a goal to model ways in which we could partner to achieve constructive action in spite of our own deep differences in religious ideology and practice–to “weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place” (Margaret Mead).
My plenary panel colleagues and I are now co-authoring an article that we hope contributes some of what we learned and discovered to the field of student learning and development.
In the field of student affairs, we focus on identity formation and often avoid or neglect the most deeply engrained socially constructed identities “assigned” at birth for many people–Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Baptist, Muslim, Pentecostal, non-believer, and more.
I understand the reasons for our reluctance and I believe it is our responsibility to support the whole student, which cannot happen if we are afraid to engage about religious identity. Do we encourage them to share this part of their lived experience? I confess that I find it difficult as an executive in a higher education association. It is much easier to identify as gay.
I grew up in a family where four generations belonged to the church of Christ in the Southern United States. The unwavering expectation of my family was that I would be church of Christ as well. I was not allowed to visit other churches, listen to instrumental religious music that non church of Christ churches enjoyed, and I was discouraged from having friends outside the church. It was assumed that I would be baptized in the church of Christ, heterosexually marry in the church of Christ, bear children and raise them to repeat my experience. But, I divorced and “came out” and my religious identity was stripped away. There was no place for a divorced cisgender lesbian in the church of Christ.
The loss of my religious identity was very painful even though I no longer accepted some of the teachings of my church. That identity was interwoven with my sense of belonging in my family and much of who and what I thought I was and would be was defined by that identity.
When students feel that same loss for any reason, including when they feel compelled to hide religious identity in order to feel safe, they suffer and, inevitably, the entire community suffers. We are as sick as our secrets.
Over the last 17 months of my tenure as Executive Director of ACPA – College Student Educators International, I’ve engaged in many conversations about our Association’s strengths and weaknesses in supporting individuals with identities that increase their vulnerability to discrimination, exclusion and inequity. Amongst those persons have been those who identify as atheist, those who belong to traditional Christian evangelical churches, Jews, Muslims, persons who identify as transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, Latino, undocumented, differently abled, Black, white, Pan Asian, feminist, Greek and more. Most recently, the increased use of terms, like “white Christian privilege,” “persons of color” (rather than Black), and “Islamic,” have stung some members.
The reality is that words hurt when they attach to deeply held values connected to identity. I am tempted to say that it is a balancing act, but truthfully, hurt never finds homeostasis.
So what can we do to find our way into relationship and community when there is so much fear, anger, blame, shame and fault-finding?
I believe that we may have to borrow from The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (1997).
Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t take anything personally. To not take anything personally is to acknowledge the unique identities of other people. We respect their subjective realities, realizing that their views do not necessarily describe us accurately.
Don’t make assumptions. The antidote to mind reading is to ask for evidence before concluding what people are thinking.
Always do your best.
Ruiz’s (2011) next book, The Fifth Agreement, suggests the following agreement: Be skeptical but learn to listen.
And, I think we may have to add two principles shared by all major faith traditions: grace & mercy.
Ruiz, D. M. (1997). The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing.
Ruiz, D. M. (2011). The fifth agreement: A practical guide to self-mastery. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing.