Perhaps it’s not surprising that some organizations devoted to dialogue between religious faiths have turned their attention to political divides. Eboo Patel, the founding director of Interfaith Youth Core, has spent the past few years getting to know more conservative evangelicals at Christian colleges. “A big part of what I did after 2016 was to seek to build relationships with nonracist conservatives, people two inches right of center, at places like Berea College and Calvin College,” he told me. (Dr. Patel is an Ismaili Muslim, and his organization is ecumenical.) “Let’s build a big America tent. That’s been the vision.”
Last year, Dr. Patel’s group tested this vision by supporting a program called Bridging the Gap at Oberlin College in Ohio and Spring Arbor University, a Christian liberal arts school in Michigan. After students from both schools spent a week learning listening skills — and realizing that deep listening is not as easy as it seems — the Oberlin students traveled to Spring Arbor, and then the whole group spent a final week together at Oberlin. They lived, ate and did small-group activities together, sharing perspectives on contentious topics like abortion and the role of the American military.
The program culminated with a “deep dive into the criminal justice system — we met corrections officers, visited prisons and went to the Michigan State Capitol,” Alexis Lewis, who graduated from Spring Arbor this spring and participated in the program, told me. She said that the discussions “could sometimes get uncomfortable” but that she was surprised by the honesty and mutual understanding participants expressed. “I think we dehumanize each other when we have different opinions, but in Bridging the Gap we started with telling our stories, and that made you care about the other person,” she said. “It wasn’t about trying to change someone’s views but realizing that the truth you have might not be the whole truth.”