Gloria Winston-Harris: Conflict is healthy and can promote interfaith understanding

From left to right, North Carolina Central University Interfaith Ambassadors Khalid Oloko, Charity Brown, Maryam Awan, Kelly Thomas, Joshua McLaurin and Lyric Harris at the Interfaith Youth Core Leadership Institute in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Gloria Winston-Harris.

In an interfaith setting, resolving conflict as quickly as possible isn’t the goal. Rather, healthy conflict can be a spark that leads us to self-awareness, self-reflection and transformation, writes the director of North Carolina Central University’s Office of Spiritual Development and Dialogue.

There were only a few minutes remaining for our first Inter-Connections Ministry Fair on the campus of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in 2017. More than 40 religious organizations and nonprofits had come to our campus to kick off the new academic year, and 230 college students flocked to the tables to collect information.

I approached one of the Christian pastors and invited him to offer an inclusive closing prayer. He glanced away and said, “I only pray in Jesus’ name.”

I stressed to the pastor that we are an inclusive and diverse campus, and the event -- hosted by the Office of Spiritual Development and Dialogue -- was intended to introduce students of all faiths to religious options.

The pastor apologized and suggested that I invite someone else. I saw a Muslim student I recognized handing out materials nearby. I turned to her for help, and she offered a prayer.

It was an awkward moment -- but as a leader of interfaith engagement on a college campus, I have to say it’s not unusual. This example reminded me of the numerous stories I’ve heard and witnessed of everyday conflict in interfaith work, as religious diversity increases on today’s college campuses.

Thankfully, interfaith dialogue efforts are increasing as well; the Interfaith Youth Core, for example, founded by Eboo Patel, now works on more than 450 campuses nationwide.

In a recent address at a conference on religious life on college campuses, Patel noted that interfaith conflict in this setting is not to be avoided. “This is not a distraction,” he said. “The job of a professor or chaplain is to build a community that can hold together divergent groups. You should expect conflict.”

The inevitable conflict that arises in this work isn’t something to be resolved as quickly as possible. It’s healthy, and can be a spark that leads us to self-awareness, self-reflection and transformation.

I am a United Methodist clergywoman, and until recently I pastored a church in Durham, North Carolina. In 2014, I was appointed to start a Wesley campus ministry at NCCU -- a first for an HBCU in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

My life was changed. On campus, I encountered -- really for the first time -- a community of people of many faiths, including students from interfaith families.

I looked around at these millennials -- living, working and cooperating together -- and I was deeply impressed. Some of my church companions might want to stay immersed in a Christian world, but I could see that this was the future.

In 2015, NCCU created the Office of Spiritual Development and Dialogue. In my role there, I serve as adviser to the Interfaith Ambassadors, a group of students interested in exploring the religious diversity of NCCU, the wider region and the nation through interreligious dialogue and action.

Members of the group -- we have eight this year -- meet weekly and represent three different religions. They do service projects, complete reading assignments and train fellow students. One of the issues they deal with regularly is conflict -- and not just with outside visitors.

Through my work with students and my training at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, I’ve developed three steps for resolving the issues that arise: identify the conflict, seek transformation or change from the conflict, and respond effectively to it.

I’m proud of the way my students have dealt with some uncomfortable issues, and I’d like to share some examples of how this process has worked for them.

Identify the conflict. Most of us have been taught to ignore conflict. But that just makes the problem bigger. If we consider conflict to be healthy and normal, we can identify it and figure out how to respond.

One of the first conflicts in the Interfaith Ambassadors arose the first week our group gathered. The students formed a circle and reached for each other’s hands to pray. A female Muslim student pulled away from the male student next to her and moved to stand next to me; her beliefs forbade her to hold hands with a man.

The male student didn’t know this, so he took her move personally. He came to me and said, “I don’t think she likes me.” I got them to talk it over. We identified the source of the conflict, and in the process, he learned something about her faith.

Seek transformation or change from the conflict. What’s most important is not to resolve the conflict -- to put an end to it -- but to be transformed by it. Using skills like listening -- even just using the prompt “Tell me more” -- can facilitate that transformation.

The conflict between the male and female students, for example, helped the male step up to leadership. Learning about the female student’s faith empowered him to act, and the next time we were in a circle, he said, “Let us pray -- and make sure that our Muslim sisters are beside our other sisters.” At a recent conference, he served the same role, supporting Muslim women students.

Respond effectively to the conflict. What can you do to respond to the conflict? Our students struggled with this when a Muslim female student needed a ride to the interfaith meeting but the only student who could conveniently give her a ride was a non-Muslim male, to which her father objected.

Some of the Christian students didn’t think this was a big deal; others saw her father’s behavior as sexist. But the group had to take her concerns seriously and understand how seriously her family took their faith.

Although it was not an explosive conflict, it was still a conflict. The group talked it out, asking, “What other sacrifices can we make as a team? Who else can give up something?” In the end, two women agreed to rearrange their schedules to pick her up.

These are some examples of conflict our students have grappled with as they’ve learned to say, “This is healthy; this is good for us. We can communicate effectively about conflict and be transformed by it.”

In my Christian tradition, I think of the apostle Paul, who looked at conflict from many different perspectives as he counseled the community of believers at Corinth. He wrote, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly …” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NRSV).

In Paul’s day, mirrors were made of polished silver or bronze. As fine as they were, they could not produce sharp, clear images; a mirror’s reflection was dim and to some extent distorted.

I believe that conflict is what can prompt us to realize that our view is distorted. Because of conflict, we may have to realign our view. We may have to lean in to see more clearly. Conflict stops us in our tracks to say, “Let me look at this from the perspective of love.”

On college campuses across the world, bold, energetic, hungry millennials are transforming the world through interfaith dialogue -- seeing and welcoming all angles of vision rather than only one perspective.

Recently, we met to plan the Inter-Connections Ministry Fair for the beginning of this academic year. Our Interfaith Ambassadors were among the 52 religious groups represented at the planning meeting. One of the highlights for me was a comment from one of the students, who said that in the past year he’d learned to appreciate the difference between diversity and pluralism.

“I look out and see you --- you’re very diverse,” he said to the gathering. “But it’s not about being a diverse group of ministers. This is about how you work together.”

I noticed that the pastor with whom I’d had the awkward interaction was at the meeting, and I’m delighted he wants to work with our students again. I realize that this is an opening for me to identify and resolve last year’s conflict -- and be transformed by it.