Amalie Zinn, co-founder of “Interfaith Online;” Maryland—
In March, I packed up a few suitcases and caught a flight from Wisconsin to DC for an extended spring break due to COVID-19. A few weeks later, the University of Wisconsin-Madison notified us that, like most other universities, we would not be coming back in April and classes would be online for the rest of the semester. Unfortunately, since I’d only packed for a month, the majority of my belongings were back in the Midwest, along with almost all of my college friends. Soon enough, I found myself missing the casual social life that college provides; I missed talking about current events with my friends, specifically my roommates. I’m a Jewish girl from Maryland living with three second generation immigrants from Wisconsin: one Muslim, one Hindu, and one Christian. Because we all have different backgrounds and beliefs, it was easy to swap stories or talk about current events in our everyday lives. I missed hearing their perspectives on whatever was going on in the world.. When classes ended in May, my friend Hannah and I had the idea to try and recreate this casual environment by creating a discussion group for college and graduate students of any or no faith. On June 11, about a month after we developed the idea for Interfaith Online, we opened the virtual floodgates and the discussion began.
A couple of weeks before our first Interfaith Online discussion, the larger-than-life racial violence crisis filled my thoughts–and my Twitter and Instagram timelines. Videos of the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers popped up every time I checked social media, alongside pictures and videos from the protests beginning around the country. We were just starting to publicize Interfaith Online, but I felt uncomfortable promoting interfaith discussion during this time of civil unrest and rightful frustration with the American norm – I did not want to shift my focus away from the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for racial justice and equality. However, after the first discussion, when the topic was religion and family, I realized that Interfaith Online could be more than just a recreation of the casual discussions I had with my roommates back at school. It is a beautiful, productive way to make unique connections during a period of restlessness, fear, and frustration. In times of anger and sadness, I am used to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and feeling the strength and power of a protest community. Unfortunately, for people like me who live in multigenerational homes or with people more at risk to the Coronavirus, protesting hasn’t always been feasible during this pandemic. Interfaith Online zoom discussions have given me, and many others, an opportunity to gather and learn from one another, even if we have different views and experiences. We aren’t exactly standing shoulder-to-shoulder, but it’s community, nonetheless.
A discussion topic that I was really looking forward to was centered on religion and the American Dream. One of my favorite lectures I attended this past semester in college was about how harmful the concept of the American Dream is to American economic welfare policy. During this lecture, we learned that while mobility–the ability to move in and out of a given economic status–is relatively similar in the United States and Europe, the perception that people can easily move out of poverty if they work hard is unique to the United States. This makes Americans much more tolerant of greater degrees of inequality and more resistant to the idea that the government has a responsibility to reduce inequality. I came into the Interfaith Online discussion confident in my view: the American Dream is harmful, plain and simple.
Just a few minutes into the discussion, it was clear that nothing was plain and simple about this topic. We began the evening with an easy question on commonalities between religious values and the values in the American Dream to break the ice. Soon, we dove into the conversation I was really looking forward to; the one that wasn’t just about religious values or tradition, but about culture and background. One of the beauties of these discussion is that they aren’t tied completely to religion — yes, we usually start there, but students with different belief systems are also students with different heritages and ethic identities. Even though this was a diverse group of students, I entered the Zoom call naively believing that my views on the American Dream would be widely accepted, which, I soon realized, wasn’t the case. Of course, some members of the group were in agreement that the American Dream was harmful. Some students firmly believed we should erase the American Dream because of its basis in Manifest Destiny and human rights violations. Some argued it is simply a way to sweep struggling Americans’ concerns under the rug or a way to blame inability to move up the economic ladder on laziness, rather than lack of equal opportunity. Others, however, weren’t so willing to abandon it, as some of their families immigrated to the United States because of the American Dream and economic mobility just wasn’t possible for them in their home countries because of certain identities. One student brought up the idea that maybe we were just holding the United States to a higher standard than other countries because of the ideals in the American Dream and that we weren’t really failing at all. We were straddling the line between lived experiences and theoretical ideals. By the end, I realized two truths:
1. The American Dream is not the reality; everyone agreed that we definitely aren’t living out the American Dream right now.
2. The American Dream is a beautiful idea and our policies and practices should strive for that equal opportunity society.
At the same time, I found myself with many more questions. The discussion took place right after an unusually unpatriotic Independence Day during which many of my college-age friends took to social media to voice their disdain for America. I saw very few Instagram posts of people in red, white, and blue swimsuits saying “happy 4th,” and a lot more people questioning our country and the intolerance and inequity that continues to exist. How can we celebrate Independence Day when, this year perhaps more than any other year, it is abundantly clear that many Americans are not truly free? Clearly, these questions and this struggle with the American Dream are not unique to Interfaith Online Zoom calls. However, interfaith discussion, which allows for interaction between people of different backgrounds, religious or otherwise, provides a unique way to discuss current struggles with our values and upbringings.
While I am truly happy that many of my friends have become more outspoken about their political and personal beliefs on social media, I also believe we need to do more than just shout our views into the online abyss; we need to converse with and confront people with different experiences. I firmly believe one of the best ways to protect our generation from division, hatred, and prejudice is to engage in candid conversations with people who hold different views and values. It’s one thing to try to diversify your newsfeed, but it’s a whole other beast to engage in discussions with those new perspectives. Listening and learning from people who were raised in different environments gives us the unique opportunity to learn about why one might hold certain views. In real conversation, you can’t just turn off the TV or put down the article when you start to disagree or get frustrated; you have to listen, ask questions, and search for common humanity to try to understand why someone thinks differently. Now, when it feels more difficult than ever to connect, I have found solace on Tuesday nights, when I boot up Zoom for Interfaith Online’s weekly meeting. The conversation always shifts back-and-forth from personal to philosophical, the students from various colleges and universities are always respectful, and the topic is always new and interesting. It is a wonderful reminder of one of our most powerful tools for change: open-minded conversation.
If you would like to join the conversation, you can find Interfaith Online on Instagram (@interfaithonline), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/interfaithonline/), or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Incoming college students, graduate students and recent graduates of any or no faith are welcome to join the discussion.