Through the creation of the Interfaith Leaders in Higher Education Council, IA’s Interfaith Leadership Institute seeks to provide year-round programming for educators in various institutions, whether private or public universities or other interfaith communities.
These educators who are experienced in creating, facilitating, or supporting interfaith work are gathered to advise on the programming the Institute provides the broader IA network. We asked these leaders to share what brought them to interfaith work, especially with undergrad students, and also why it’s crucial for students to learn from and be curious about people of faith or none. Creating space for students to explore what’s meaningful to them and the people in their community is an essential part of higher ed learning.
Students and educators like these will be attending and facilitating sessions at this year’s Interfaith Leadership Summit, taking place in Chicago from August 4-6. Join us at the Summit to meet these inspiring educators, and others like them, in person!
What brought you to interfaith work with and for undergraduate students?
Anthony Cruz Pantojas
My own journey and experiences moving and existing in-between different cultural, religious, spiritual, and philosophical communities in the Caribbean and mainland U.S. instilled in me a transdisciplinary orientation to understanding the vicissitudes of the human condition. Education (formal and informal) during my college years clarified personal values, commitments, and the role my positionality plays in how I wanted to show up in the world and be accountable. Given this transformative learning, I sought a path to contextualize an embodied, intersectional, and decolonial humanism within the larger discourse of interfaith/interreligious engagement. As a humanist chaplain, celebrant, and spiritual director serving in higher education contexts, I see my role as facilitating meaningful possibilities for students and community members to explore and trouble the ways power, religion, spirituality, and ethics move in our contemporary sociopolitical landscape. I have witnessed the importance of interfaith/interreligious work to harness the radical power of difference and to cultivate practices that move us towards the liberatory futures we seek.
Interfaith work has been inherent in my work in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Students continue to bring their spiritual selves to the college experience as they wrestle with whom they are becoming, find place and community in the higher ed setting, and exchange with new and often challenging ideas about life and society. Interfaith efforts have been valuable in framing commonality and cooperation across groups and in helping individual students navigate increasing “big questions” in their journeys.
My own spiritual practice drives me to find the sacred in all things and fuels my desire for interfaith collaboration. My years working in campus ministry confirmed my understanding that many students are seeking and longing for a connection with something bigger than themselves. However, I found that religious/spiritual diversity was often missing from the conversation related to DEI at public institutions. I am drawn to building up campus understanding related to religious, spiritual and secular identity to create a more inclusive campus culture for students.
I began my career as a public high school teacher and youth minister, following in my family’s footsteps. I became passionate about not just educating young people, but empowering them to build bridges. It seemed only natural when opportunities appeared to bring public education and religion together, developing the next generation of Interfaith leaders at a public university.
I grew up Christian. My father was a pastor. I attended Sunday School, sang in the youth choir, and taught Vacation Bible School. I loved God and worship. One day while in college, God spoke to me in another language. I began to learn more about Islam. My older sister had converted previously, and I loved her lifestyle. I knew Islam was for me. I also knew the value of working with different faiths based on my background.
I have always been passionate about building bridges across differences, and that passion has always fueled my teaching and research. I, along with a handful of colleagues, realized over a decade ago that our students had very little opportunity to interact with peers from different faith backgrounds. The world is more diverse than their campus community. So, we have worked to develop curricular and co-curricular opportunities for them to cultivate empathy and build healthy relationships across faith divides. We also utilize interfaith principles to encourage healthy intrafaith dialogue on campus, so students can develop mutual understanding for the ways that culture and religion intersect in beautifully different ways.
When I was a young Muslim high school student, I became dedicated to peacemaking and chose to attend a Quaker college to learn about faith-based conflict resolution. From an early age, I was formed by scholars of my own tradition to understand that Islam was gifted with the capacity for peace. I am thankful my college experience further built that into my daily life and that I was able to learn about how other communities manifest peace. I hope for the same for our Augsburg students, that they learn about their own histories and build a world of understanding by learning about others.
Rabbi Sara Zacharia
After being on campus for a year, I realized that there was a great need for building interfaith programs and dialogue. In those beginning years there were several mass shootings in the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities across America. We stood together on the Quad mourning the loss of human lives. With this, I decided that it was time to be proactive and bring an interfaith fellowship to campus.
Nora Zaki Mantas
I grew up with a mother who converted from Christianity to Islam and to a Muslim father. This meant I have family of different religious backgrounds, and this influenced my interest in learning about religious difference and religious literacy.
In your opinion, why is it important to equip college students today with the skills of interfaith leadership?
Anthony Cruz Pantojas
I believe we are all cartographers and curators of civic life. Equipping college students today with the skills of interfaith leadership enables more capacity in our communities to acutely reckon with the relational complexities, challenges, and possibilities of advocacy, care, and accompaniment. These relational complexities are a fecund site for intergenerational coalition building and resistance work.
Interfaith leadership is human work. It involves interacting with differing truths and ideas in pursuit of common goals. These leadership skills translate to all aspects of students’ personal, academic, and professional lives.
I believe that college provides one of the most unique and influential opportunities for defining the difference you want to make in the world and I love working alongside folks to further their sense of meaning and purpose. Equipping our students with these skills prepares them for deep listening, an ability to converse across difference and to organize and work for societal change for the common good.
We live in a world which is becoming increasingly secular in some places and increasingly religious in others. A more global, decentralized, and diversified spiritual marketplace means an impossible mix to master and therefore the necessity to develop leaders and skillsets to find common ground. To harvest the fruits of this diversity, and battle the diseases of supremacy spreading across cities, nations and religions, we should equip college students broadly to understand and navigate religious and non-religious difference.
Interfaith work is essential, especially for undergrads. Howard University wants to educate students to be citizens of the world, not just their hometown, city, or state. This includes learning about different faith traditions and experiencing cultural diversity. This includes being comfortable around people who think differently and worship differently.
We must fight the current trend of polarization in our society and learn to once again see each other as “We,” not “Us vs. Them.” In my experience, today’s college students are increasingly disenchanted by polarization and the paralysis it brings regarding action on the world’s most pressing problems. Upon graduation, students will be working, living, serving, and engaging with persons of different faiths. That is a demographic fact of life in the 21st century. We have the opportunity to train and empower the current generation of college students with the interfaith leadership skills needed to build a thriving pluralistic society where we work together for the common good.
I often talk about how peace is the most abstract theological principle. How do we actualize it? How does one practice it? What does peace look like in our daily lives. I have spent my life teaching peace, not as a distant reality but an engaged, everyday part of our existence. This is a set of skills we need even more as polarization builds and we continue to talk past each other, instead of to each other.
Rabbi Sara Zacharia
In the climate of polarization, guiding students in their ability to talk with peers who do not necessarily agree with you and who are not of the same faith community. Interfaith on campus also builds relationships with peers and helps to “de-other”, creates allyship and friendships.
The college campus is a laboratory in a way to allow students to grow and practice skills that will support their adulting as they leave the campus experience with lifelong skills and experiences.
Nora Zaki Mantas
Religious identity is important for a lot of college students and unfortunately, in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) focus areas, a student’s religious background may not be considered. For example, though, a Black Muslim student wants their Black identity and their Islamic identity to be equally respected and understood. Also, religious values and ethics help students see themselves in holistic ways, rather than only being valued for their intellectual output in university settings.