Growing Up Interfaith – Midwestern Style – Sam Ropa

My inspiration to become a fellow with the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry came while I was living nearly 8,000 miles away from Madison, WI. While studying abroad in Varanasi, India during the first semester of my academic year, I received word that a new interfaith organization on campus was seeking students to build the group, and add its activist voice to campus conversation. Born out of the idea of the Lubar Center, CRGC would promote inter-religious tolerance and conversation; it would respect the differences between faith communities while highlighting their common commitments; it would protect the rights of students to freely practice their religions, ensuring that their religious dietary restrictions wouldn’t be overlooked by university policymakers. Through interfaith dialogue it would articulate a vision of citizenship, as a member of a university and a global community.

I was raised in an interfaith household. My mother is Episcopalian Christian and my father is a member of the New Kadampa Buddhist tradition. I like to say that my childhood was “filled with hymns and puja chants in equal measure,” since I regularly attended both of their places of worship. Because of their spiritual differences, the main values they imparted to me and my siblings were grounded in a kind of ‘Midwestern morality.’ “Be humble; respect the dignity of others, and your own; all things have worth, cherish them; but above all, be humble.” But some of their guidance was religiously motivated. My father, Dave, taught through example. His choice not to eat meat is his way of respecting all sentient life, a decision he made when he began practicing Buddhism. When she gave advice on personal decisions, my mother’s mantra that “your body is a temple,” was an appeal to the divine in me and in others. Their most important message, however, came from a shared religious worldview: equality of all people. Equal treatment, equality of opportunity, equal justice under law. “To respect people’s dignity,” my mom has said, “you’ve got to treat them equally, and as equals.” It was here, in this liberal, Midwestern, Buddhist-Episcopalian family that I was raised. It was around these ideas of morality and community that I found a set of values, and found a spiritual identity.

During the fall semester of my third year in college I studied abroad in Varanasi, India. Historically, the city is important pilgrimage site for Hindus but also has prominent places of worship for Jains, Muslims and Buddhists. Sarnath, the location where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dhamma is only 10 kilometers from the city, in fact, most Buddhist pilgrims that visit Sarnath don’t even visit Varanasi. I had never lived in a place like this, in a place where the practice of religion was so public, so visible, and outward appearance, social identity and religious identity were quickly conflated. As a white American of European descent, it was commonly assumed that I was Christian; likewise, my roommate, Kalua, who is an ethnically Nepali citizen of India, was assumed to be Buddhist and a non-citizen. It was in Varanasi that I was intimately introduced to the ways in which religious ideology can maintain social hierarchies, between or within religious groups. It was here too that I was introduced to the history of religious struggle against modes of oppression, such as Gandhi’s faith-based resistance to British colonialism, and the history of struggle against the violent uses of religious ideology, such as the Dalit activist B.R. Ambedkar’s famous conversion to Buddhism and repudiation of the caste system. Religion could be a means of making change, but its associated ideologies may in turn structure the status quo.

Where my parents differed from purely liberal idea of equality—an equality which treats everyone exactly the same—wasn’t always clear to me growing up. Now, it makes all the difference. They emphasized that in order to treat everyone equally, you may have to take account of where they came from. Context and history matter (the most) when it comes to equality. My commitments to the goals of CRGC, to interfaith, and to activism are based on my parents, and now my belief in religious equality, and my conviction that conversation and action can make it a reality.

– Sam Ropa