I would not call myself an optimist. I feel deeply and I value my ability to hold space for multiple truths. I do not tend to look for the good in every situation; or at least, not without simultaneously recognizing the messier parts. Overt positivity makes me a little nauseous, as if my body physically responding to the omission of other possibilities.
I grew up in a homogenous, conservative, Christian community. My social circle was primarily connected to the church. I had no awareness of other worldviews, socioeconomic statuses, political affiliations, or minority experiences. I was really good at playing the part of “good little Christian girl.” On the outside, my race and class made it easy to fit in. By age 7 or so, I was also aware that my behavior and modifications to my personality could further enhance this sense of belonging. Now my childhood memories play back as if the volume has been muted and the TV screen is fuzzy.
Looking back, I see that little girl with grief and grace. To play the part, I smothered my voice and blended in. My innate curiosity became a threat to my status in the community; my questions would risk my involvement and the subsequent sense of love and belonging from people I admired. I muted my curiosity for decades, but I believe there was a small part of my inner child that refused to let go of my questions. It took me a long time to realize that my curiosity may have been a perceived threat within the community, but on the whole, my curiosity would lead me to discover a messier and more beautiful reality.
In 2016, I was able to vote in a presidential election for the first time. I was a sophomore in college. Prior until this period in my life, my proclivity for questions was dampened by my own fear and shame. In the classroom, I found space for those questions thanks to some truly remarkable faculty and staff. I began to study more about our country’s history, religious diversity, and political landscape. The more I learned, the more I realized my early education omitted so many different histories. I was scared; the rhetoric of former President Trump mimicked the language I was accustomed to hearing growing up.
At Interfaith America, we use the notion of potluck nation rather than a melting pot nation. A melting pot uses heat to break down dissenting flavors into a more cohesive, palatable taste. This metaphor has served a purpose; it spoke to generations of people who came to America in search of a new life. However, America’s history is more complicated than that. The foundations of this country are rooted in forced migration, slavery, and genocide. A melting pot narrative can hold space for both the realities. On the other hand, an potluck for all Americans creates an opportunity to bring to the table what one can contribute. It assumes a right to food and belonging, not based upon race or financial status but as a human being living in America.
In 2016, I had just tasted my first meal at our national potluck through my education. I was not going to sit idlily by while our table was depleted of the very diversity we espouse as proof for moral superiority. In the years since, there have been 3,014 mass shootings in America. The federal government instigated egregious religious freedom policy, such as the Muslim Ban and a recent Supreme Court case on public school prayer. The right to vote is under attack, as state and federal lawmakers pave the way for stricter voting access laws which disproportionately harms people of color and poor communities. Over 1 million people have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, in large part due to systemic failures by government leaders and systemic erosion. Women’s right to bodily autonomy hangs in the balance, despite the fact that many religious traditions support and even sanction abortion in various scenarios. The list goes on and on.
The world is so much bigger than my 7-year-old self could have imagined. I see the beauty in Interfaith America’s vision for our nation to be a place where religious diversity is a guaranteed right worth celebrating. I see the hypocrisy in our government speaking out against religious discrimination and violence in other countries, when we can’t seem to get a handle on it in our own backyard. At this point, I can only take it one day at a time. I look for ways to engage with others through a lens of humble curiosity, because I know that a threat to anyone’s religious freedom is a threat to everyone’s religious freedom. To the little girl I used to be, I make space for her questions, her fear, and her passion. It is often said that younger generations will save us, but I wonder what it would mean if we tapped into our own inner child’s sense of curiosity and resilience as adults in this beautiful, messy world. Maybe, just maybe, we can access these qualities as vital to our fight for freedom and democracy in the coming days.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life