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September 24, 2007 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

CounterPoint With Sarah Teng

Tolerance and respect are words that get bandied around a lot in today’s society. But how often do we put our preconceptions aside and actually engage with ‘the other’?

‘Faith Encounters’ provided just such an occasion. At an interfaith day recently hosted by the Anglican Chaplaincy, Kiwi and international students tackled such questions as: ‘Can people of different religious convictions converse honestly? Can we move beyond stereotypes?’

Students from various faith traditions were invited to share – not pat, pious answers, but from personal experience. Muslim, Buddhist, Jew and Christian spoke of finding, doubting, struggling and owning their faith. Common stereotypes that cast those with strongly held religious beliefs as bigoted and pursuing, sometimes violently, their own group’s interests were dispelled. No-one attempted to excuse their religion or attack others for the past; the focus was on the present, and the future.

Those that had already been making efforts to bridge divides of religious belief and ethnicity spoke with warmth about the richness of friendship that had developed. In allowing disagreement to exist, new ground had been forged through respect and heartfelt sharing. It was agreed that when you approach another, not out of fear or desire to make them like yourself, real communication can occur. This may be painful to our understanding of the world and ourselves, but it is a growing pain, and one that our world needs more people to take on.

Common to all the experiences shared during the day was the sense of being in the minority, of being misunderstood. Hearing others express the same struggle deepened understanding and sensitivity toward each other. Chords were also struck in the experience of international students journeying along this secular nation of New Zealand where not only identities had to be redefined, but their consciousness of how they practiced their faith, some for the first time. In the midst of this discussion, a professed ‘non-believer’ raised the issue, ‘Why believe?’, kick-starting a lively exchange, and turned mindsets as ‘believers’ suddenly became the obvious majority.

At the conclusion of the day a desire to take ‘Faith Encounters’ further was expressed. Of course dialogue can occur around a multiplicity of identities and further interaction, whether in the context of religious belief or not. This presents us with opportunities to move beyond talk to experiencing tolerance in action. VUW encompasses great diversity in its student body, but we have to desire to move beyond our comfort zones, beyond the people like us, for real interaction to occur. At a time when it is easy to pay lip service to values such as inclusivity or fall prey to media stereotypes or that negative experience, such encounters become all the more precious.

To find out more contact:
Sarah Teng, International Student Chaplain
Sarah.Teng@vuw.ac.nz

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