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Compassion in Conversation

Journalists Broaching the Touchy Topic of Religion:

You’re sitting at your dinner table, or maybe you’re talking with friends. And then someone says something you don’t agree with. What do you do? Do you try to understand their perspective? Do you try to convince them of your argument?

More than ever, navigating debate with others can be tricky. People talk past each other and try to prove each other wrong on issues that polarize us. Listening has become secondary.

That’s why when I first discovered that right in Connecticut there would be a discussion grappling with how people can become more compassionate in conversation, it gave me hope. I thought, ‘This couldn’t have come at a better time!’ So I traveled from Glastonbury all the way to Grace Farms in New Canaan to learn for myself how civil discourse can be improved in my community.

Arriving at Grace Farms, you immediately notice the beautiful meadows that encompass the property. Winds blow peacefully while birds serenade you as you walk around the area, providing a perfect tranquil environment. The venue proved a place for audience members to become engrossed in the discussion at hand.

The talk, “Portraying Faith: An Inside View of Religion in the Media,” took place Friday July 20th at 7:30pm, and still people flocked to the doors, with about 100 in attendance. It was heartwarming to see that Connecticuters like me were not only willing but glad to spend their Friday night learning about how to bridge differences.

And the guest speakers only added to the audience’s enthusiasm. Two esteemed reporters provided their perspectives that night. The first: contributor for The New York Times and CNN Wajahat Ali. Ali is also a consultant for the U.S. State Department; the author of The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslims following 9/11; and a Peabody-nominated producer for The Secret Life of Muslims.

The second and equally impressive journalist was Michelle Boorstein. Boorstein is a Religion Reporter for The Washington Post. She has traveled the globe as a journalist, working for the Associated Press and reporting on topics including how strapped doctors in Afghanistan choose who lives and dies. Furthermore, Boorstein was named the Religion Reporter of the Year by The Religion Newswriters Association three times.

Both reporters grew up with religious backgrounds; Ali was raised Muslim and Boorstein was raised Jewish. These upbringings greatly influenced their decisions to report on religion. Boorstein was motivated to search for what religion meant in her personal life, while Ali felt compelled starting at a young age to share his culture and story with others.

The discussion was moderated by Community Initiative Director & Faith Initiative Program Facilitator at Grace Farms Lisa Lynne Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick began the night reaffirming Grace Farm’s own faith initiative, which emphasizes accepting all faiths.

Following this fitting introduction, a captivating discussion began. Boorstein and Ali each highlighted that issues surrounding faith are not always black and white, and there is a lot of room for gray area.

“I try to be open to hearing other people and so many people have said they’re so grateful to see religion in the mainstream media and covered in a nuanced way … I just think there’s a lot of room for conversation,” Boorstein says.

And reporters are not the only ones who can have these types of conversations, so can everyday people. Although people oftentimes feel powerless, they can make differences in their own communities simply by building intentional relationships.

For example, it’s important that you ask questions to people who come from different backgrounds and understand their perspectives, religious or otherwise. Likewise, if you have a different cultural background you should share your traditions with neighbors. As Ali emphasizes, “Each person has a ‘superhero’ power and each person has a certain role.”

Although hearing such advice comforted me, it is still hard to shake off the fact that some people merely aim to “score points” when speaking about controversial subject matters. According to Boorstein, this happens because such a phenomenon is often ingrained in our culture.

However, Boorstein provides us with a glimmer of hope. If people become more forgiving of one another, then reconciling differences may be a little easier. We need to remind ourselves that nobody’s perfect.

While reporting, Ali has also seen how tough overcoming these differences are. During the 2016 election Ali spoke with many supporters of the leading Republican candidate. These supporters were initially skeptical of Ali because he represented the Huffington Post, a liberal leaning media outlet, and because he is Muslim.

Once people realized, however, that Ali was polite and provided interviewees an opportunity to tell their stories, more and more people wanted to speak with him.

This one example shows that it’s possible to engage in touchy conversations with people from different backgrounds. You just have to be willing to take a risk.

Ali’s and Boorstein’s perspectives resonated with me greatly. Regularly, I have felt powerless myself when observing the existing polarization in the country, and maybe you have too. But these reporters show that it’s possible and worth it to try to create change in your communities. And if enough people act, these small drops can create a wave of change.





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