American Civic Life

Going Together: Why Mentors Are Essential for Interfaith Work

By Chris RayAlexander
Chris RayAlexander (center) with students in discussion. Photo courtesy

Chris RayAlexander (center) with students in discussion. Photo courtesy

We hone ideas through the friction of practice.

When I began interning with Interfaith Atlanta and building Interfaith Atlanta Youth (IAY), a program for interfaith youth education, service, and advocacy, I was sure that my background as a university professor would see me through the initial challenges of that new adventure. After all, I had already committed substantial time and energy to theorizing and modeling interfaith relations. I had also volunteered with young people enough to feel confident in my ability to build a strong rapport and a comfortable environment.

And yet, my first few months on the ground brought a raft of unforeseen obstacles and problems. I stretched my knowledge base in religious and cultural studies to the breaking point as I contended with transportation logistics, event coordination, socioeconomic disparities, budget constraints, and basic questions of organizational structure. I soon realized that my interfaith journey with those young people was going to be about much more than keeping the ship afloat. We would have to pick a shared destination and learn how to chart a course through unknown waters. We would need to build the vessel for this voyage together. Fortunately, we found a true north star in the guidance of my interfaith mentor.

At first blush, being a mentee seemed somewhat untimely. I had benefited from the guidance of mentors in my academic career, but I was now the one who usually occupied that role for my students and youth members. I thought I already knew more than enough about mentorship. The overwhelming intensity and pressing urgency of the demands presented by my youth program instead made me feel like I needed quick answers far more than the demands of a relationship. I was sure that the Emerging Leaders Mentorship Program would be helpful, and I came to our first meeting with a litany of questions, but I also thought that a second meeting would likely be unnecessary. Never have I been happier to be wrong!

My interfaith mentor taught me that friendship, reflection, and questioning are the heart of mentorship.

More than answers, my interfaith mentor taught me that friendship, reflection, and questioning are the heart of mentorship. Hearing my concerns, she drew on her experience to help address my most exigent issues. This relieved much of my anxiety, but the relationship had only just begun. As we continued to meet, she invited me to reexamine basic questions about my vision for our organization, my youth program, and interfaith work more broadly. A skillful articulation of priorities and strategies complemented her wealth of knowledge for serving youth who come from different backgrounds and have disparate access to resources. She helped me identify future challenges and feel my way through my own emotions regarding my religious past and ambivalence as a religious leader. My interfaith mentor soon became a partner in my efforts and a trusted voice of reassurance. Her insights into interfaith leadership and organization changed how I speak about and conceptualize interfaith action. My mentor’s compassion, expertise, and vulnerability helped turn my confusion and distress into calm determination.

My time as a mentee in Interfaith America’s Emerging Leaders Mentorship Program provided even more than the guidance and clarity that usually makes such relationships so worthwhile. Our shared engagement with the promises and problems of my youth program changed my understanding of the whole mentorship process. I now aspire to enact those changes in my mentorship relationships.

Lingering with the hard questions that define our work and determine our trajectories; tailoring and enhancing the language of one’s activism to invite others into collaboration; being willing to share one’s own failures, weaknesses, and struggles: my mentor gave me all of this and she helped me to flourish as a mentee. My confidence as a leader and the strength of my youth program have both benefitted inestimably from that relationship. It would be hard to overestimate the sense of empowerment that comes from knowing that, whether in times of growth or crisis, I can depend on my mentor and all the other resources of Interfaith America’s Emerging Leaders Network

Interfaith work carries us toward a world that will be more loving, hospitable, and nurturing for all my sisters and brothers because of, and not despite, our differences. My interfaith mentor taught me that the best way to stay on course toward that still distant shore is to thoughtfully return to the questions that first sparked the desire for the journey and to treasure the wisdom and solidarity of the others who travel with me. A friend of mine once told me: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Very little about building meaningful and durable communities is fast, but my experience as a mentee shows just how far you can go with the counsel, friendship, and support of an excellent interfaith mentor. 

Dr. Chris RayAlexander is a recent graduate of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. After a career as a Spanish professor, he has embraced a full-time interfaith vocation and will be forwarding the mission of Atlanta’s Interfaith Children’s Movement while seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ. He is a co-founder and Chair of the Support Board for Interfaith Atlanta Youth, a project connecting young people across faith, ethnic, and geographic boundaries through interfaith education, service, and advocacy. In his free time, he translates philosophy and navigates the perils and promises of parenthood with his partner, their son, and their orange tabby.