Reimagining Interfaith Leadership in Movements for Social Change
April 15, 2021
Harmeet Kaur Kamboj (they/them) is a Sikh American interfaith organizer, writer, educator, and editor of Faith in Full Color. They are a candidate for the Master of Sacred Theology (STM) at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. Harmeet’s scholarship centers on the experiences of marginalized communities of faith in the United States and the ways that these communities organize politically. Their public writing has been featured in the Religion News Service, Sojourners, and Interfaith America. Prior to pursuing an STM, Harmeet worked at America Indivisible, the Public Religion Research Institute, and the Campaign for Youth Justice.
Tyler Coles(they/he) is a native of Roanoke, VA, and the only child of Monica and Terry. Inspired by the wisdom of their Unitarian Universalist and Wiccan traditions, Tyler believes the best of our individual tasks are in working for collective liberation. They personally engage this mandate through multi-racial organizing, supporting young adults, and movement chaplaincy. Tyler currently serves as the Intern Minister at Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria, VA and as staff member of the Unitarian Universalist Association where they support faithful leadership across the American South.
As I sit back and reflect upon the countless conversations and virtual interactions that I have engaged in over the last year, the value that I heard uplifted the most was that of care. And this really isn’t of much surprise. After all, in the last four months alone we have experienced yet another wave of white supremacy, violence, fear, and misinformation. And the honest truth of the matter is – these are not new occurrences. What is new however is the ever-growing number of individuals coming into alignment to provide care. This faithful response calls us into the uncharted space of lending accompaniment throughout the highways and byways of our lives.
Accompaniment manifests in two ways. First is family care, or more broadly speaking, people care. It is how we show up and show out for those in our immediate circles. For some this rests within the spheres of family and friends, whether they be of blood relation or not. From there exists the realm of “our people,” those who we are in deep relationship with due to shared identities of embodiment, experience, and philosophy. For some, particularly those within historically oppressed communities, these spheres are one in the same, and for others, they are interconnected but not fully overlapping.
The second form is that of movement care. This deals with how we bring our whole selves, in all of our blessed messiness, to the work of liberation. In bringing our whole selves, we bring all that resides within our herb baskets. These are the skills that we have innately or have developed over time. They aid in our ability to be both sustainable and resilient, imaginative and pragmatic, sharp and smooth, expansive and precise. Movement care prioritizes our collective and individual healing in response to the wounds caused by systemic harm played out on an interpersonal level.
In light of the urgent need for care within our families, communities, and movements, where can and should interfaith leaders fit in? To ensure that all receive the care they need and deserve, serious change to our social and political structures is needed. Whole movements have been built on the need for authentic care, and interfaith leaders have a responsibility to engage in them. Too often, though, we see ourselves exclusively as spiritual guides and crisis responders. But interfaith caregiving extends beyond these two very specific and sometimes limiting, roles.
The types of care we offer must align with the diverse spiritual and material needs of our communities. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate this diversity than through scholar-activist Deepa Iyer’s Social Change Ecosystem. Iyer’s model invites us to broaden our understandings of radical care and activism beyond just guidance and crisis response. Instead, Iyer asks us to interrogate what each of us can uniquely bring to the movement. Guides and first responders are, of course, a part of this ecosystem, but so are storytellers, visionaries, caregivers, and many others. All ten of the roles that Iyer outlines in her Ecosystem are integral to building a world grounded in equity, liberation, justice, and solidarity.
We can interpret Iyer’s model as an invitation to think beyond the roles that we assume we must take on as interfaith leaders. We should “get in where we fit in,” so to speak. Not every interfaith leader is equipped with the skills and resources to guide, to respond, to build, to heal, to disrupt, etc., but many of us have already engaged in one of these skill sets even outside of movement spaces.
Harmeet, for instance, has a background in the arts. Prior to the pandemic, they never thought to insert their skills as an artist into the movements in which they already took up space. But the reinvigoration of the Movement for Black Lives after the murder of George Floyd, coupled with social distancing restrictions imposed across the country, called Harmeet to engage their artistic communities in new ways. The Faith in Full-Color zine was birthed in light of that, harnessing Harmeet’s existing networks and skills to uplift the voices of those most marginalized in interfaith spaces.
Tyler, likewise, engages the work of liberation through utilizing the stories, symbols, and rituals of their religious lineages. Taking seriously the knowing that we “can’t be free till we are also spiritually free,” Tyler incorporates both disruptive and healing modalities within their tool kit. This ranges from participating in direct actions in response to police brutality to facilitating healing spaces during the 2019 Presidential Election.
As we continue to confront the unprecedented stress and fatigue of this moment, it’s natural to feel stuck, as if we’re at the end of our ropes. But our movements grounded in care and mutual aid call us to show up however and whenever we can. It’s not a matter of sacrificing what we don’t have; it’s a matter of harnessing what’s already within us to lean in and live in to our values every day.