To mark the 20th anniversary of Interfaith America, we spoke with individuals connected to the organization about their own interfaith work, memories of Interfaith America, and their hopes for the future of interfaith cooperation.
Interfaith America Magazine’s Allie Vroegop interviewed Megan Johnson, Interfaith America’s Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives. She supports senior leaders across sectors, whether higher ed or corporate leaders, to engage in religious diversity. With her extensive knowledge of the organization over the last 16 years, Johnson shares how she is motivated by her Christian faith to welcome and love her religiously diverse neighbor.
This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Allie Vroegop: How did you get involved with interfaith work and Interfaith America?
Megan Johnson: My first step into interfaith work was when I studied abroad in Israel my junior year of college. I grew up in a very homogenous Christian community in Southern California. When I got to Israel, it was the first time that I experienced myself as being in the minority. My program was for English-speaking students, primarily Americans, living in Jerusalem, where we attended the national Israeli university. There were 500 participants and maybe a handful who were Christian. That year I fell in love with Israeli culture, the language, the history, the land, all of it, and especially learning about the Jewish roots of my Christian faith.
I got back to Georgetown and met a Muslim woman in one of my courses and realized she was from Jerusalem. As I talked with her, I learned that her family lived right next door to where my dorms were. It was the Eastern side of Jerusalem, which I had completely neglected to explore, because that’s the Palestinian side of the city and I was living in the Jewish side. As our friendship developed that semester, I realized that I was missing a big part of the story. It was as if the blinders fell off. I recognized that there are two stories and they’re in opposition to one another, but they’re both true. At the same time, I was about to graduate and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was asking myself, “what’s the role of a white Christian woman in this conflict?” and wanting to really embody Jesus’ principles of reconciliation and love for neighbor and for enemy.
A few months later, I heard the founder of an organization called Seeds of Peace speak about this summer camp in Maine where Palestinian and Israeli young people come together for reconciliation and leadership training. I was immediately intrigued and wanted to be part of it. I went to work for the organization that summer, and then for the next five years back in Jerusalem and in New York. At times at the organization, there was a tendency to see religion as part of the problem. If we could just avoid religion, then we could find common ground. Every so often, you would have a counselor or a group of kids in the program who were very religious, but there wasn’t really an engagement with religious identity.
My experience with Seeds of Peace made me want to explore the obstacles and the opportunities that faith brings to the Middle East peace process and I found my way to The University of Chicago Divinity School to study. I was there for all of six weeks when I heard Eboo on the radio being interviewed by Krista Tippett. My memory of that moment was that here was this Muslim leader saying to Krista, but really to the listener, “Here’s how my Muslim tradition inspires me. What from your tradition inspires you to work for the common good? And, what is it that we can do together to make our community stronger?” He offered this vision of young people from different religious communities doing service projects together in their communities in order to build understanding while also putting their shared values into action.
That struck a chord in so many ways. One, I had been in this space of trying to bridge significant divides and religion had never been tapped as a resource or an opportunity. That strategically felt exciting. And two, personally, my religious identity was my primary identity and to have someone from another faith want to hear more about it was intriguing to me. I went to Interfaith Youth Core and ended up being an intern for a few months, and then came on full time. That was 16 years ago.
What keeps me here is that same invitation to connect the things that matter most to me to this important work in the world, and IA’s interest in listening and learning about each other’s motivations and values. I love that I get a chance to do that for other people.
AV: What’s a special memory that you have of your time so far with Interfaith America?
MJ: I feel like I grew up with the organization and it grew up with me. My first project was to launch our Fellows Alliance, which was an intensive student fellowship program where we picked 20 students every year, gave them funding and training, and supported their on campus interfaith organizing work. The relationships that we formed and the ways that we got to learn from them and support them in their campus work laid the foundation for the intensive work we did with campus partners after that. I did site visits to all 20 students that first year. I was never home! I remember celebrating Shabbat with Josh Stanton on campus at Amherst, who is now an IA board member, and hanging out at the Interfaith Center at Johns Hopkins with Farah Qureshi – she’s now on faculty there! So many incredible memories from that time.
Also, we ran the Faiths Act Fellowship with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and I got to travel to both Malawi and Mali with the fellows who were learning from local organizations about their work to stop the spread of malaria. I remember learning in Malawi that there’s only a handful of established hospitals in the entire country. If you’re going to give people information, medicine, and mosquito nets through this hospital network, you’re limiting your reach, but there are hundreds of churches and mosques. Our partners on the ground recognized that religious communities could become education and support centers if given the resources and I remember feeling inspired by this innovative and revolutionary approach. There has been significant tension between the Muslim and Christian populations in Malawi, but we were introduced to Muslim and Christian leaders working together to try to end malaria. It was incredible to bear witness to the work that was happening there, and then to train up this cohort of young leaders to advocate for that work back in their communities in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
The most meaningful memories I carry with me from my years at Interfaith America are linked to my long-time relationships with staff like Noah, Jenan, Amber, Eboo and Mary Ellen. I came to Interfaith America because I believed that bridging religious divides was really important for the common good, but I wasn’t sure how it fit with my Christian theology. In the early days, I was really wrestling with what felt like a split identity—my desire to follow Jesus and be a committed Christian and also this growing respect and admiration for people from other faiths. I remember one poignant exchange with Noah. We shared an office and as our friendship developed, we would talk about our religious beliefs. I learned a lot about Judaism and his relationship to his faith community and was open with him about my relationship to my own. One day he asked me my thoughts on salvation and heaven, and at some point in the conversation I said, “I can’t believe that God would condemn you to hell, but sometimes I think that I should.” In other words, I felt like I was betraying my religious community by not condemning him. His response was, “That makes me so sad as your friend that I might be drawing you away from this religious commitment I know is so important to you.” I get chills when I think of that moment. He was so humble and generous with me—Christ-like even. What a perfect encapsulation of the complexity and beauty of interfaith engagement.
AV: What future opportunities for Interfaith America are you excited about?
MJ: There’s so much on the horizon! I am really excited about the opportunity we have to translate all of the good trainings, resources, and frameworks we created for higher ed to other sectors. I think the partnerships we are forming with other kinds of community and leadership organizations, for example the Nation of Bridgebuilders initiative with the YMCA of the USA, Habitat for Humanity, and Catholic Charities, is super exciting.
The corporate consulting work that has begun to take off is also really exciting. There’s an interest in engaging religious identity and diversity in the workplace but it’s not talked about often or openly and business leaders don’t have the tools they need and are looking for good models. That’s a bullseye for what we do and what we have to offer. The sky’s the limit on that as far as what we could build and the impact we could have.
Then with Bridging the Gap, we’re thinking about how to address polarization head on, how to engage ideological difference, and connecting that into our existing focus on religious identity and diversity. There’s a ton of appetite for that and students are having transformative experiences with the model. I’m excited to see that grow.