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My Experience with Pluralism at the Student Conference for Religion in the Public Sphere

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My Experience with Pluralism at the Student Conference for Religion in the Public Sphere

Every year, students affiliated with the Martin Institute at the University of Idaho participate in the Student Conference on Religion in the Public Sphere (SCRIPS) at BYU. SCRIPS is organized by the Wheatley Institute, which brings together religiously diverse expert mentors with students from across the country for discussion and project development in a roundtable setting. Roundtables at this year’s SCRIPS focused on some aspect of religious pluralism in a variety of contexts, and authors in this article series in FāVS share their experiences while detailing the projects they and their peers developed.

UI’s Martin Institute is a teaching, research and outreach entity focused on the causes of war, the conditions necessary for peace and the international system.  

Guest Commentary by Jamie Dougall

Over the last several years, we have faced a radically changing world. The pandemic, divisive elections and economic and global strife seem to be pushing us toward a breaking point. With polarization ramping up, I want to make a difference, but I don’t know how. I am afraid my good intentions will only add to the chaotic chatter and never-ending rage bubbling around me.

While I want peace, it sometimes seems like I can only achieve it by being quiet, covering my ears and withdrawing from the noise. But in my self-enforced silence, I have a nagging fear. I’m adding to the problem. How can peace last if those of us who desire it do nothing?

People suffer when we stop conversing. I say “conversing” because I don’t just mean talking. We’re all talking — screaming into the void — but we don’t feel heard. Conversing involves speaking and listening. It involves relationship and commitment. Even though I have known these things, I haven’t known what to do differently in my everyday life. That’s why my experience at the Student Conference for Religion in the Public Sphere spoke to me.

Beginning the Discussion

We arrived in Utah at Brigham Young University’s Aspen Grove retreat center in February during a blizzard. After sitting through our first lecture, we hurried to meet our round table groups. I was assigned to Kevin den Dulk of Calvin University’s “Civic Hospitality Through Religious Literacy” and expected to launch into more lectures right away.

Instead, I joined a group of six students from across the country who all had different backgrounds. Each of us from different universities, our array of majors ranged from anthropology and psychology to pre-law and international studies. We had two members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Catholic, an atheist and two agnostics. First, we were asked to share some public issues that were important to us. From those issues, we were going to choose one that we would research, find a solution to and present on by the end of the conference — in just four days’ time.

Choosing the Issue to Solve

Choosing an issue was the hardest part. We all cared about so many different topics, but we needed one we could all agree on and work on together. We were tired after so many long sessions, and I began to feel a bit tense. When my group settled on the topic of the religious rights of incarcerated persons, I was a bit skeptical at first. It seemed like a big, and simultaneously vague, project.

However, as we worked, a few things began to happen. First, we learned a lot about our issue. The U.S has laws pertaining to incarcerated people’s religious rights, but the enforcement of these laws are left up to correctional officers. Because of the freedom they have to decide how the people under their care are allowed to practice their religion, this easily becomes a source of conflict in prisons. There are many complaints and court cases surrounding the issue. Our group wanted to learn if there was anything that could be done about it.

Becoming a Team

The second thing that occurred as we worked was that the six of us began to fuse into a cohesive team. Together, we ran through a multi-step process, trying to isolate the source of these religious conflicts and brainstorm possible solutions. We drafted multiple ideas, finally settling on an educational program for correctional officers and the “middle management” of prisons, the sergeants, captains and others. We would utilize existing training structures like the state’s academies and yearly human resources training, adding a specially-designed section on religious literacy.

The day before our presentation, we stayed up until nearly midnight to put together our outline and slideshow. The next morning, we rehearsed, rehashed our ideas again and realized something spectacular. Our team had become allies. Our differences really had made us stronger, better equipped to address a difficult topic. The presentation went remarkably well. We received professional feedback from an international panel, and then we were done. We could finally relax and just enjoy the company of our new friends.

Learning to Hope

At the end of this experience, I look back with surprise. The conference did more than teach me teamwork, to research and create policy proposals or to value religious pluralism. It gave me hope. I don’t feel isolated or powerless anymore. I am proud of my team, proud of what we accomplished — and confident that these kinds of experiences can be reproduced in the real world. It requires patience and a willingness to try again. Hard feelings don’t have to be the end of a conversation.

Our last speaker at the conference was named James Patton, the president and CEO of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy. I hope I never forget his message. “Allow yourself to be wrong. Allow others to be wrong. Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better … Fervently seek what will help you heal others and yourself.”

My time at SCRIPS, I engaged a real-world problem. I can do it again. I don’t have to hide, seeking my own broken peace. I can be a part of a conversation.

You can, too.

Jamie Dougall
Jamie Dougall
Jamie Dougall is a first-generation student at the University of Idaho pursuing degrees in Anthropology and International Studies. Her interests in cultural and religious pluralism were kindled when she was a child participating in community service projects, stoked in the humid jungles of Papua New Guinea, and fully realized while trying to pound out essays on her couch in North Idaho during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jamie hopes to use her academic career as a springboard to greater engagement with programs that promote peace and human flourishing in a beautifully diverse world.

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Lynn Kaylor
Lynn Kaylor
1 year ago

Great article! Even greater practice!

I’ve often felt difficulty relating to the phrase, “We need to have a conversation about (and during the pandemic, it was a conversation over the festering issue of race relations). I often wondered what each person meant by “having a conversation.” Did they mean, a one-way conversation? Did they mean a process of commitment to negotiation like what you learned to do?” Did they presume in their statement that nobody ever conversed about the issue before those crying out for a “conversation” came along? Did they mean that new issues have developed that needed to be addressed? Is the intended conversation supposed to be limited to words or does it also involve money to be defined as a “conversation” much like what has been applied to the term, “consideration” (think words and actions in etiquette, money in real estate). Chances are, this means different things to different people, and may include any combination of these ideas and also ideas I haven’t even thought about.

The issue arises in a similar way when we consider how many religious divides derive from linguistic, ethnic, and national identities. I mean, look at the way Orthodox churches have been defined by nationalities over the centuries or how Seventh-Day Adventist churches have often been divided by both language and racial lines that even included Black conferences. In the former case, the ties among them appear to be loose ones. In the latter case, they all still answer to a singular General Conference. But even when they fall under some common umbrella, tensions can still be palpable. Sooner or later, people must interact with diverse churches and communities, and consequently, more people should learn the skills you did.

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