Last week, I had the opportunity to host the CoExist Religion Panel featuring seven speakers, all representing different faiths/perspectives and religious denominations. This was one of the first CoExist panels that had a diverse range of gender and racial representation. Being a person who is passionate about social justice, it was important for me to be able to host a panel that highlighted diversity.
The CoExist panel is tricky. One person cannot possibly speak for a whole religion, and even then, the person can only represent their own perspective and what their faith means to them. So even though there were a couple of people representing the same faiths, they interpret them differently.
As a moderator, I think the CoExist panel did exactly what it was intended to do — it allowed a space for theological discussion, provided the audience with context for various religions, and reiterated the importance of being able to coexist with others, even if we don’t share the same beliefs. These conversations are so important to have, and the fact that we can have an event on campus and engage with our peers in such a conversation is amazing.
I admit the conversation at times was kind of exhausting. There was one question in particular that I was excited and fearful to include and hear answers for — “What challenges do you encounter involving your faith/belief with controversial relationships such as LGBTQ+ community, abortion, race, and the role of women in society?” This was a huge question, but it is one that needs to be asked. I started the event by reminding the panelists and audience to be mindful of the others in the room and to be respectful with one another to maintain a safe space with this question in mind.
Being a queer woman of colour, as well as a student advocate and activist on campus for social justice related issues, hearing some of the answers to these questions was hard. I have always had a hard time following and believing in traditional theology for these very reasons. At times, it seems as though there is no room for feminism in traditional theology. In ways that some interpret it, theology isn’t allowed to evolve with us. Some don’t even think the progress we’ve made as a society regarding marginalized groups is good progress. It upsets me that there are still some people out there who are so closely tied to their interpretations of their sacred texts and their Gods that they forget about other humans in the room. I didn’t like hearing that queerness wasn’t in God’s plan, or that the world would be a better place if everyone was Christian, or having people skim over the race conversation and barely talk about the importance of women in society according to their religion. Some of what was said that night erased the validity of my identity and hearing that ‘I can still be saved’ makes me want to throw up.
This got me to thinking – there were several representatives that interpreted queerness and those who followed other religions as sinful or wrong, and yet they still say God tells them to love everyone. Several of the panelists spoke about how their religion lives through them. Some even said the reason they were there that night was to make sure people knew about their religion. They had to share their words, share the good news. Everyone thought they were right. I started to realize that the relationship they had with God was similar to the one I have with myself, my friends, my family and my allies. Everyone on the panel acted out of their own truths, just as I do; what happened that night was an exact representation of what we had all come together to do — coexist.
What they were saying and their views were not necessarily coming out of a place of hate. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with their choices and their worldviews.
From all the hate that’s being spread with Standing Rock, to the US election and every other issue that has people worried around the world, it’s important to acknowledge the difference between safety and a threat, and the world could use a bit more safety right now, even if its present in the form of tolerance.
Am I happy with the responses to this specific question? No. However this was the first time we had a variety of answers for this question. A panelist spoke about how loving each other means accepting everyone regardless of their race, gender, sexuality or class. Others spoke about how their religious community may not accept the queer community, but that they personally did. This was one of the first times there were almost the same amount of people speaking from either side. The “accept everyone as they are and who they choose to be” side and the “everyone should realize that this is not the way we are supposed to live” side. That, in a very small way, is a sign of progress.
Being able to hold a CoExist event where everyone can engage in respectful discussion while admitting to a lingering tension in the room is also progress. But there is evidently still a long way to go. CoExist provides an opportunity to engage in a conversation that people usually aren’t able to take place without anger and fear. To be able to have a conversation like this at all is something to be grateful for.
-Manchari Paranthahan, Contributor