Let’s Get Uncomfortable

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It’s easy to get comfortable in youth work. We know our programs and our kids. We know the other players, the politics, the trends and the landmines. We may not get paid much, and we may work in challenging circumstances. But all in all, it’s pretty comfortable.

Sometimes being comfortable gets in the way of doing important work. Indeed, my experience is that the best youth work happens when we’re outside our comfort zones.

One of the zones where we’re often most uncomfortable involves religion. Youth work has an implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about religion. It’s a private thing, and we don’t want to get into kids’ business.

That’s too bad. It hurts young people when we don’t offer a welcoming and engaging space to open up about all aspects of themselves. And we miss a powerful opportunity to build a respectful culture as part of the “curriculum” of youth development.

Not long ago, Search Institute and Interfaith Youth Core completed an interfaith service-learning project that taught us a lot about the promise and pitfalls of religious pluralism in youth work. Called “Inspired to Serve: Youth-Led Interfaith Action” (www.inspiredtoserve.org), it was supported by a Learn and Serve America grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and other youth (including those of no religion) came together in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn., to listen, lead, serve and learn around issues of the common good.

It wasn’t always comfortable. People who had negative stereotypes about other religious groups had to learn to work together. In order to maintain a welcoming environment for all, we took pains not to allow proselytizing or promoting religion. But in the discomfort, we learned Ten Commandments for Interfaith Youth Work (knowing that they are not as inspired as the original Big Ten):

1. Thou shalt not assume that youth don’t care about religion. Many do, though they may keep those commitments and questions hidden.

2. Thou shalt include a broad spectrum of the faith community. The breadth enriches the experience and increases the odds that the conversations will be respectful and inclusive.

3. Thou shalt not perpetuate stereotypes, fear or mistrust. The challenge is to move beyond tolerance toward building positive, mutually reinforcing relationships, even when young people disagree with each other on doctrine.

4. Thou shalt not assume “exposure” equals “growth.” Youth are already exposed to other faiths at school, in the media, among friends. That exposure may not be thoughtful, intentional or even responsible. Structured reflection and dialogue are key.

5. Thou shalt focus on deepening relationships. Young people will tell you that the most meaningful aspects of their interfaith experiences are the deep relationships that form.

6. Thou shalt invite youth to tell their stories about how they live and what inspires them to make the choice and commitments they make. Through story-telling sessions, youths articulate their experiences and, just as important, listen to stories from religiously diverse youth.

7. Thou shalt pay attention to religious holy days, dietary restrictions and other boundaries. Some young people cannot participate in prayer, meditations, religious music or other rituals with people from other traditions. Taking care to understand and address these practical issues shows respect and allows young people to participate fully.

8. Thou shalt listen to each other. If you’re wondering if something would be appropriate or inappropriate, ask people from the different traditions represented. Respect their responses.

9. Thou shalt not expect youth to homogenize their beliefs, but to become more articulate about the particularities of their own faith while also learning about others. This is an important message for parents and religious youth workers who may fear that interfaith engagement might “water down” their kids’ faith.

10. Thou shalt give time and space for trust and openness to grow. People aren’t used to working interfaith. It can be awkward at first.

According to the FBI, one in five hate crimes in the United States is motivated by religious bias, making this category of crimes second only to racially motivated bias crimes. Interfaith youth work offers not only a unique way to engage young people meaningfully, but creates a powerful counterforce to the potentially harmful tensions stimulated by growing religious diversity. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s vital for the future of our pluralistic, multicultural society.

Getting more comfortable with interfaith work may be one of the most important areas of youth work that needs attention in the 21st century.

Peter Benson is CEO of Search Institute, based in Minneapolis. http://www.search-institute.org.