Crossing Boundaries: Interreligious And Extrareligious Dialogue

The following is a guest post by Leanna Powell, the Assistant Director of Annual Giving at UMBC.

Powell previously served as the Assistant Director for Partnerships at Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake. She has spent her career working with nonprofits in program development, partnership management and fundraising. She holds a B.A. in Rhetorical Composition from UMBC.


I am one of the roughly .3 percent of Americans who are Unitarian Universalist, and one of an even smaller group who were raised in the church. UUism, as we call it, is descended from Christian sects, but today it is an entirely non-dogmatic religion with no set concept of god and no reference text. For my entire life I have straddled the religious/secular divide, fine-tuning my “What Is Your Deal Anyway?” elevator speech and fluctuating uncomfortably between identities.

I felt this discomfort clearly on the way out of the orientation session for Imagining Justice in Baltimore, a project I was honored to be invited to but already was skeptical about what I could add. We did a round-robin of introductions the first day, and I felt my stomach sink as each person in the room identified themselves as Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. For a cohort hosted by the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS), this should not have surprised me.

I have struggled throughout my life to understand my own convictions and how I define my religiosity. In high school, I was a devout agnostic, with a tight, if hazy, grasp on the definition of the term. In college, when I was feeling most isolated and adrift, I thought I might be developing a personal relationship with god. But when my social life improved, it felt less urgent.

Now, I usually call myself a humanist. This constant back-and-forth has left me feeling unsure whether I really belong in the religious world at all—or if, as I feel now, our typical definitions of religion are simply too narrow to include me.

Similar to my own spiritual journey, Unitarian-Universalism is a denomination that struggles to be understood, in large part because of its tenet that each person has a responsibility to seek their own truth and encourage the journey of others. It’s kind of a “choose-your-own adventure” church.

Like many UUs I know, I’ve always been a little hungry for faith. It’s liberating to find your own way to spirituality, but it also leaves you feeling untethered. There is no right way to practice and no reliable way to access spiritual rest or invigoration.

Walking into each UU congregation is a totally different experience. On any given Sunday our pulpits host not just our ministers, but also poets, historians, visiting clergy, lawyers, and lay people. We have to make our own path to the divine, and those moments when you are able to forge a connection to something greater can be hard to create.

The moments when I have most felt the tug of the divine have been during justice work; in the basic humanism of building better community. Church was my first link to social justice.

The UU youth movement was and still is at the forefront of radical anti-oppression organizing, and I was introduced to groups like the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in my formative teenage years. It was during those years that I began to develop my “own truth” in the struggle against the violence of systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, and economic inequity.

I have faith in the intensely personal process of reckoning with my place in systems of injustice and in the communal work to undo them. To me, this is the most important part of being in a human community.

And so it wasn’t that unlikely that I ended up in a group of religious activists at ICJS. I had been working for Habitat for Humanity as the faith liaison, leaning hard on my Sunday school lessons about world religions and capitalizing on the catchall nature of my religion to adapt to different congregations each weekend. I spent a lot of time worshipping with Habitat’s partners in sanctuaries, basements, and on construction sites. When I was asked to be a part of the ICJS cohort of Community Activists, I was at a personal peak of churchgoing. I just wasn’t going to my own church.

Despite finding a lot of joy in my work, I couldn’t shake a sense of discomfort attending even these loving, welcoming Christian churches. I grew up vaguely resentful and a little fearful of mainstream (non-UU) religion, in part because of the hijacking of Christianity by conservative politicians, which hit a particularly aggressive stride during my formative years. But more importantly, it’s hard to grow up as an outsider, even in small and mostly invisible ways.

Friends who went to more mainstream churches were ready to talk about religion from an early age, but unwilling to accept that atheists like my parents could be good and moral the way theirs were. “Real” religion was always the three Abrahamic faiths, plus Buddhism if you were feeling really inclusive.

Religious identity was something you could define with checkboxes on a census, and I was always “Other.”

Having accumulated a wider range of reference points in a few decades of living and relationships, I’ve been able to move beyond my initial resentment and discomfort to find deep appreciation for the compassionate faith of many religious people I know. Sitting in church on Sundays, though, I wince at the gendered language of prayers. And I still feel nervous talking with religious people about social issues, knowing that there is a wide variation in how people apply biblical teachings in everyday life.

This cohort has done a lot for my understanding of both religion and religious people. Knowing that we were all gathered on common principles has made it a lot easier to hear from others how God serves as a motivation in their work. I have gleaned a lot of valuable ideas from our conversations. I have made friends with inspirational and admirable people.

And yet, I find myself feeling burned out on the process, not having a scholar or text to represent my faith tradition or moral grounding. Being a perpetual visitor and never the host is taxing.

The challenge of interreligious dialogue seems, in Baltimore at least, less urgent than extrareligious dialogue. Faith-based activism in Baltimore is still a strong force, as evidenced by the strong showing of clergy and congregations during the uprising of spring 2015. But more and more religious groups are partnering with secular, civic movements. Baltimore United for Change is a perfect example. Coalitions can be difficult to maintain in the best of circumstances, and here in Baltimore where activists cross racial, economic, cultural, and geographic lines, it is important to recognize the potentially deep-seated conflicts that can arise when religious difference is a complicating factor.

The Jewish scholar Marc Gopin and Muslim scholar Najeeba Syeed talked about the importance of being willing to cross boundaries, and yet stay anchored in one’s own identity. To me, this crossing among traditional religions seems almost easier when the other side can recognize text, tradition, and even emotional experiences as cousins to one’s own.

Is it possible to step over the boundary of what we usually consider religion and still see and respect a sense of morality and a deep commitment to community and transcendent experiences?

I am left with more questions than answers: Where are our unseen boundaries, those not delineated by language, skin color, or geography? Whose job is it to cross those boundaries, and what should we take with us? In a culture where more and more people are identifying as “nones,” how do we share a plan and a language of justice that capitalizes on the timeless lessons of religious traditions without keeping people out?

The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.