Tasneem Noor, Sable Manson and Tahil Sharma — interfaith interns for the Diocese of Los Angeles — say they hope to bridge faith and culture divides by sharing the stories of those both inside and outside the mainstream.
Recently, they did just that, while leading an Aug. 12 workshop at the Santa Monica Baha’i Center, titled “Kicking the Doors Down Nicely: A Young Person’s Guide to Social Activism,” Noor told The Episcopal News.
“We had a good discussion around identity, the challenges of coming together and how, as youth ourselves, we are making an impact — Sable through higher education, Tahil through advocacy, and me through building relationships and creating safe spaces,” she said.
They plan to reprise the workshop and the stories of their unique ministries at the Nov. 1 – 7 Parliament of World Religions (POWR) gathering in Toronto. POWR is a global organization founded in 1893 to cultivate harmony and foster engagement among the world’s religious and spiritual communities to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.
Additionally, Noor is a member of the leadership team for the upcoming “Hearts Broken Open” mini-retreat planned for Holy Faith, Inglewood, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27. The gathering aims to “bring together activists and contemplatives” in a common exploration of the intersection of spirituality and social justice work, said Noor, award-winning author of The Faith Connection: Your Journey Starts with Knowing Yourself.
The activist trio also led a July 1 “Interdependence Day” walking meditation at Echo Park Lake, near the Cathedral Center of St. Paul. The goal was to strengthen interfaith ties. Participants visited seven stations set up around the lake, pausing to offer prayers and meditations in the tradition of the world’s major religions.
The interns also are available as presenters for parish programs: for information, email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bishop John H. Taylor formed the diocesan Interfaith Cooperative in 2017 and named the three interfaith ministers-in-residence. Manson is a Christian; Noor is Muslim, and Sharma is of the Hindu and Sikh faiths. Their mission is to widen interfaith collaboration, working in partnership with the diocese’s Program Group on Ecumenical and Interfaith Life.
Convener for the Interfaith Cooperative is Bob Williams, diocesan canon for common life and immediate past president of the Interreligious Council of Southern California.
“Each of our interfaith ministers-in-residence is a rising star in her or his faith tradition and the wider interreligious community,” Williams said. “It is the greatest privilege to work with them and to learn from them.
“One of the best accomplishments of recent regional interfaith work has been the lifting up and mentoring of young adults as leaders,” Williams noted. “Our three interfaith ministers-in-residence came to us through the Future50 cohort jointly named by the Interreligious Council of Southern California and the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“We believe the Interfaith Cooperative and the synergy created by the Cathedral Center ministers-in-residence is a first-of-its-kind model across the dioceses of the Episcopal Church,” said Williams, who with Bishop Taylor oversees the diocese’s interfaith work.
“One area of future concentration in the coming year is strengthening of interfaith ministry — including much-needed practical work in social services and housing justice — in the Inland Empire,” Williams said. “We look forward to fundraising and mobilizing to help meet significant needs in local communities.”
The three interns say they are deeply appreciative of Bishop Taylor’s vision and support of their ministries from Williams. This relatively new role, says Noor, “is finally the opportunity I’ve been looking for to present my ideas.”
Like many young adults, she “yearns to have a greater impact, to bring our ideas to the religious leaders and implement them and [previously] we didn’t have space for that,” she said.
Here are the interns’ stories.
‘Curiosity, Compassion, Vulnerability’
Interfaith work comes naturally for Noor, whose experience living in five countries made embracing diversity and difference a challenge and a necessity.
“My dad is from India; my mom, from Pakistan. I lived in those two countries, as well as in Dubai, and the United Arab Emirates. We came here [to the United States] when I was 16,” she said.
“I was exposed to differences from the start, be it cultural differences, language differences, religious differences. So, for me, differences are normal,” said Noor, 34. “Embracing and learning from those differences and taking out the best from each of them is what I love to do.”
Although the frequent moves were challenging, she found faith and stability in family relationships, she said. Eventually she was able to embrace change and reconsider, with each move, “What’s exciting here? What’s the food like? What can I take with me?”
When her family moved to Los Angeles, she said, “I had never worn anything but traditional clothing. I had never worn jeans or skirts or dresses. Basically, in India and Pakistan, we would go to the bazaar and get fabric we liked. We’d give that fabric to the tailor and the tailor would make it for us. I never got to try on clothes before buying them. Coming here and shopping and being able to try on clothes was a whole new cultural experience for me.”
Noor believes those early experiences grounded her with the curiosity, compassion and vulnerability needed for interfaith work.
“When you are curious enough to ask questions, vulnerable enough to share from your heart, and compassionate enough to listen and to connect and meet people in the heart, then you can build a community that’s beautiful,” she said.
After a rewarding seven-year career in higher education, Noor made the transition to coaching and facilitation, and founded Noor Enterprises: SOULful Transformations, committed to providing transformational experiences, personal development, and opportunities for meaningful cross-cultural dialogue.
Currently she works with NewGround to develop and deepen relationships among Muslims and Jews. “I have become a better Muslim because of my interactions with Jewish people and that’s the beauty of interfaith relationships,” she told The Episcopal News. “We have to be willing to talk about the things that are personal to us, that are different to us, that are difficult to talk about.
“When we can go there with such vulnerability, such honesty, is when relationships are formed. That is when interfaith work really begins,” she said.
“When we come together, it’s about building an understanding about who we are, in order to see each other more compassionately. We can explore similarities that connect us and differences that make us unique. And we are able to see and celebrate our differences, and understand where we just see things differently.”
One of those ideas is creating “a story hub. We’re collecting stories. Stories change hearts,” Noor said.
Rather than focusing on the culture’s current divisive climate and fear of difference, she said, “I want to create a platform where we can get stories from regular people like ourselves that share how to build bridges. And that those differences cannot and will not hold us back from collaborating with each other, being compassionate with one another.”
In her personal faith journey, “I’ve learned as a Muslim that I will never be burdened with anything I cannot bear,” she said. “Those are promises in the Koran that I have deep trust in, that when I’m faced by a challenge and something that feels overwhelming to me, I go back to that and say God knows I can do this, I can overcome this.
“I have deep faith in that promise. This is separate from rituals of Islam, separate from praying five times a day. It’s a more anchoring element that helps me to navigate through life.”
‘Someone should never refrain from justice’
Tahil Sharma, who recently returned from presenting a workshop at a ‘Reimagining Interfaith’ conference in Washington, D.C., is acutely aware of the call of interfaith communities to band together as “a saving grace,” an antidote to a political climate pitting people against each other.
“As people who come from diverse ethnic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds, it’s essential for us to look toward each other for support when our community is put at risk,” said Sharma, 26, who was born in Culver City to a Hindu father and a Sikh mother.
Violence sparked his call to interfaith work while he was an undergraduate student at the University La Verne “after a white supremacist shot at a Sikh temple in 2012,” he said.
Sharma identifies with both faith traditions, appreciating their tenets that “someone should never refrain from justice.”
“It’s something I never really got to learn about until I stepped deeper into interfaith activism work,” he told The Episcopal News. “It charged me up. I discovered them both at the same time, which made it super powerful for me.”
The dual religions also “gave me an opportunity to realize that my relationship with the divine is not supposed to be simple,” Sharma said. “More importantly, that in understanding those complexities I can see how valuable it is for each and every individual to build their own relationship with the divine, however they see fit.”
He is a nationally recognized leader promoting religious/secular pluralism and social justice. He works as the Hope Not Hate Campaign coordinator for AMP Global Youth, a project of Americans for Informed Democracy.
“We have to learn to unite on multiple fronts and those fronts have to be justice and equity,” Sharma said. “But we can’t do that without recognizing and validating that we come from these different perspectives and that each of these perspectives and communities has a deep history and deep sense of injustice that needs to be redeemed.”
Yet “interfaith is not a single idea or concept, but can be practiced in how a person can live one’s daily life or routine,” he told participants at the Aug. 12 workshop. “Interfaith is not just a community of people working together but is every part of society, in the way that you live it.”
Recently he and interfaith intern colleague Sable Manson also joined participants at a Pico Union Project event featuring Golden State Sacred, a pop-up mobile exhibit showcasing the religious and inter-religious history of California.
“It [Golden State Sacred] will be moving around the state and educating people about religious diversity and the history of California,” Sharma said. Manson, he recalled, discussed the role that technology and communication — and even cell phones — play as part of sacred sanctuary space.
Sharma said he loves interfaith work because it is uniting, uncomfortable and transformative.
“That transformative stage helps broaden understandings of religion and diversity, and realizing that the integrity and validity of everybody’s story is unique and valuable to the process of how we fight for everybody’s dignity and equity.”
He hopes diocesan congregations will seek deepened interfaith engagement, and “see who their partners are in faith and moral conscience. And to reach out and make them partners in trying to mitigate the negative consequences of the issues that take place in their area — issues like homelessness, food insecurity, related to a climate of forest fires, Islamophobia or xenophobia. That whatever you’re capable of doing and how you’re best using your resources, congregations are able to let people know they’re not alone in trying to fix these problems.”
Navigating online interfaith spaces
Sable Manson views Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Redditt and other digital platforms as avenues for sharing stories, learning about each other’s perspectives and deepening and enriching one’s own faith in the process.
The creator of ##DigitalFaith: Using Social Media for Professional Development (not to be confused with Digital Faith, a website hosting service), she believes that just facilitating conversations ultimately leads to sharing faith stories.
“It is more about having the conversation, about hearing what you value, what matters to you … and in that conversation, or the telling of that story, we eventually get to how you identify yourself (spiritually or religiously). But in the meantime, just let me show up and be there for you.”
Like Sharma and Noor, Manson was identified in 2015 among the “Future50” cohort of emerging interfaith leaders in Los Angeles.
Born in Carson, she says humorously that she has been exposed to a range of Christian affiliations — baptized as an Episcopalian, studied catechism with Lutherans, attended a Catholic high school and Loyola Marymount University, and now worships at a nondenominational church.
She argues that interfaith diversity is already happening in civic life, the workplace and other secular arenas, and that the “fertile ground” of social media may be leveraged to broaden understanding.
“There is potential for great spiritual transformation,” she said in a Dec. 2017 webinar “Mapping the Online #DigitalFaith Landscape and Facilitating Interfaith Engagement” through NASPA — the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
The internet, she said, “democratizes” or allows for voices both in and outside the mainstream to be heard.
“The open access allows individuals to educate themselves. In an era of globalization, we benefit ourselves to know about other world views and perspectives; to seek other narratives, forms of expressions, to gain an understanding about another’s faith background, if there is no opportunity to engage it in person.”
Additionally, the “spiritual marketplace” allows for individuals to mix and match among traditions. For example, “you can identify as a Christian, but enjoy listening online to the Muslim call to prayer,” Manson said.
“Or you can go online to look at yoga mantras or to find Shabbat services. There is an opportunity for everyone to pull things that speak to them. It need not take away from their religious or expressed background, but be a way to be exposed to other expressions and therefore to enrich their own religious identity.”
Now 32, with a Ph.D. in higher education, she is assistant director for student leadership and development at USC’s 40-year-old service learning program, the Joint Educational Project (JEP) in Research and Academic Affairs.
JEP develops learning activities for students that complement coursework, address needs and invite reflection on social issues as young people explore their own identities, she told The Episcopal News.
“There are great discussions going on globally around the GLBTQ community, religious diversity and interfaith work. They can be true anchors. There are moments of crisis, but if individuals have a support system, it can be a formative experience that can set the tone for the rest of their lives,” she added.
She also collaborates closely with USC’s Office of Religious Life (ORL) where she has managed a religiously themed residential floor, as well as researched religious affairs administrators’ spiritual development and students’ mindfulness practices in college.
Working with millennials is especially gratifying, she said, because “in this social climate, in an empowering way the deepening of one’s identity can be used to confront issues they might see in society, create community and reach out, or the corollary of that is they might begin to see themselves as activists as one aspect of their identity.”
“I think it’s in the same neighborhood of getting people to better understand each other, the value of diverse perspectives and at the end of day, service learning, where we place USC students in local schools and nonprofits, is very similar to interfaith work, providing individuals, young people, an opportunity to engage difference in a safe space, to look at values and compare their experience with others, but not in a judgmental way.”
She currently serves as the co-chair for research for NASPA’s Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Knowledge Community and is a contributor to Patheos’s blog series, “Spirituality Itself.”
Through #DigitalFaith, she examines how individuals are using digital spaces and technologies for spiritual and religious exploration. She serves as a Journal of College and Character ambassador and volunteers with Christus Ministries.
The diocesan interfaith intern model is unique, she said. “It’s one thing if a parish thinks it’s a good idea but to have an entire diocese or group or authority engage it, is another.”
Echoing the sentiments of Noor and Sharma, she added: “Bishop John Taylor has been so supportive of us. It really speaks to how he really values this work. I’ve appreciated seeing the intersections of diversity: people of color, lived experience in the faith; age ranges, … it’s been an interfaith emphasis but larger engagement of the beautiful diversity present in the Episcopal community and wider.”
To invite the interns to speak at local congregations, email to email@example.com.