Nurturing the Next Generation of Interreligious Leadership
April 30 – May 2, 2009
Virginia Theological Seminary
Who Can Describe a Generation?
Reflections on the Spirituality of Generations X and Y
by Erik Schwarz, Managing Partner, Interfaith Works
Co-Director, Institute for Faith & Service
In the Book of Acts the writer asks “Who can describe a generation?” Not I. Trying to describe
the spirituality of Generations X and Y seems impossible. How can you adequately summarize
the inner life of such a cohort? You cannot, unless perhaps you are Peter Brown, the magisterial
historian of late antiquity, and you have the advantage of 1700 years of hindsight and a brilliant
touch with epigraphy. Therefore, instead of taking the topic head on, I shall posit four framing
issues for the spirituality of Generations X and Y and then give four mini-biographies of people
in their 20’s and 30’s who stand as thoughtful exemplars. Their stories, though they do not neatly
match the framing issues, refract and reflect them in various ways.
The framing issues are:
1. Interfaith: Generations X and Y are accustomed to an interfaith world. They may never
have intentionally reflected on this reality nor participated in interfaith dialogue, but they
grew up with the experience of family members, neighbors, schoolmates and colleagues
coming from different faiths and cultures.
2. Religious Conflict: Set against this personal experience of an interfaith world is a media-
driven cultural narrative that represents religion and especially interreligious relations in
terms of conflict. While true, or at least factual, this tightly selective narrative omits most
religious realities and is dissonant with the life experiences of Generations X and Y.
3. Fluid Spiritual Identity: As with sexual and other identities, the religious affiliations of
Generations X and Y are less ascribed or inherited than personally chosen. Though in
many cases a period of spiritual exploration may lead back to a reaffirmation of one’s
family faith (or one of one’s family’s faiths.)
4. Commitment to Service: This is felt as a gestalt and articulated as a national movement
much more than it was for previous generations. Generations X and Y seem particularly
drawn to service opportunities that are innovative, entrepreneurial and oriented towards
social change. For those interested in undertaking interfaith work, their efforts tend to be
embedded in social action.
The four exemplars are: Rachel, Daniel, Joy and Sam.
Rachel is in her early 20’s and volunteers in New Orleans with Avodah, the Jewish Service
Corps. Corps members spend one year working on urban poverty issues in local non-profit
organizations. They live and study together, forming a community of people making a
connection between social activism and Jewish life. For Rachel, this is an important connection.
Rachel grew up in Oakland, California near the Berkeley border. She was raised in “a secular
interfaith family.” Her father was Episcopalian and her mother New Age-y with Unitarian and
Jewish roots. When Rachel was 10, her mom officially converted to Judaism and took the
mikvah bath. They went to a Reform congregation together and took Hebrew classes. At the
time, Rachel felt that going to Hebrew School was the “cool” thing to do.
She went to an Episcopal middle school and then a Catholic girls’ high school with a large
Jewish population. Rachel enjoyed the religion classes, but she found the school too rigid and
ended up transferring to a very secular, liberal-arts school. She recalls that you were shouted
down if you talked about faith there, particularly if you held conservative beliefs.
Rachel went on to college at Vassar, where being seriously religious was also stigmatized. There
were academic conversations about religion, but an open dialogue about personal spirituality did
not exist. Rachel became alienated from Jewish practices even though she says a third of the
students were Jewish.
As she looked at her post-collegiate options, Rachel connected with Avodah and knew it would
be the right fit. She was attracted to the fact that Avodah is Jewish and that it emphasizes living
together in an intentional community.
Rachel is motivated by Tikkun Olam. The sense of participating in a struggle is the part of her
Jewish identity with which she most strongly identifies. She feels that “social justice” is an
overused term, but she places herself in a Jewish history of resistance as opposed to a Jewish
history of dominance/oppressiveness.
Rachel notes that she has not been formally involved in the interfaith movement because it seems
to require a fixed faith identity as one’s ticket to the table.
Daniel is in his mid-20’s and is a parishioner at Grace Episcopal Church in Washington DC. He
is currently pursuing a master’s degree in global ethics at American University. Dan also directs
“20,000 Dialogues,” an interreligious dialogue project of the Unity Productions Foundation,
generally acknowledged as leading Muslim-American filmmakers.
Dan did not grow up in a family that routinely practiced any religion. His father was secular. His
mother was also not devout though she took him to church for major holidays. Dan’s maternal
grandparents, however, were churchgoing Episcopalians. His grandfather was a deacon and a
model for him. Grandfather was a World War Two Marine veteran – a jovial and funny guy who
also had another side - a mysterious depth connected to sacred values and the church.
Dan attended Southern Oregon University, known for the liberal arts, and studied philosophy and
history. He gave up his affiliation with Christianity and seriously pursued Zen Buddhism at a
sangha in Ashland, Oregon. Ashland is a very New Age-y kind of place and Dan found New Age
spirituality both fulfilling and threatening. “I was becoming my own spiritual Frankenstein,” he
After graduation, Dan moved to Washington DC. Here he met people who were very diverse but
also deeply rooted to their various religious traditions. The move was a catalyst for a return to
the faith of his grandparents and a serious commitment to the Episcopal Church.
Dan’s commitment to community service stems from his faith. Though he comes to this
commitment from no particular denominational or narrowly Christian viewpoint, Dan is trying to
be guided by God’s will for his life. Prayer and reflection are important guides for his work.
Dan is also interested in social justice and equality within and beyond the religious sphere, and
he believes in the importance of leveraging the social capital of religious communities to positive
ends. His central interest is dialogue, which he broadly defines as how religious communities
come to know one another. Dan believes he is especially called to facilitate these processes, as
his work of service to his community. He also finds dialogue to be personally cathartic. It
strengthens his religious identity, he says, and makes him feel rooted, stable and secure in that
Joy Guha Sarkar
Joy is in her late 20’s and owns a gem and jewelry shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
She is a member of Radha Radhakantha (Hindu) Temple and director of its crisis and poverty
feeding ministry, Food for Life. She has also started an afternoon day-care group and is in the
process of opening the Abhay Academy, a day-care center whose mission includes interfaith
service-learning as well as accessibility to poor communities in the 8th and 9th Wards of the city.
Joy does not come from a religious family. At age 16, she made her first visit to Radha
Radhakantha Mandir with a school friend. It is a Hindu temple in the Gaudiya Vaisnava
tradition, a lineage rooted in medieval Bengal and oriented to the worship of Krishna. When she
entered the sanctuary and saw the deities within, “I felt it in my heart,” she said, “like God was
speaking to me directly and saying this is the path for you.”
As an adult, Joy had a powerful near-death, out-of-body experience and subsequently entered a
period of soul-searching. The Vedas (the Hindu canon) teach the importance of the moment of
death for shaping one’s next life. In the light of her experience, Joy focused on the need to lead a
life of spiritual activity.
After getting engaged at age 23 to a Bengali immigrant in New Orleans, she went to Mayapur, a
temple complex in West Bengal, for the full Hindu wedding ceremonies. Her atheist father
attended, and she witnessed a remarkable transformation in him. One day standing on a
verandah and looking at the Ganges, he breathed deeply and said, “This really is a spiritual place
– this is the Promised Land.”
Back in the US, Joy and her husband moved next to the Radha Radhakantha temple and became
very involved in their service projects. She opened her shop in the French Quarter and also
raised funds for Food For Life.
In 2005 she was seven months pregnant when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. When she
returned to the city after a several months away, she saw the temple befouled and the altar
standing empty. Remembering how important her first visit to the sanctuary had been, Joy broke
down in tears at the thought that her unborn child would not be able to see the deities. In the
ensuing months and years, she was a leader in the restoration of the temple and also directed
massive feeding efforts for storm victims and volunteer workers.
Joy is not a proselytizer for her faith and echoes the Vaisnava guru Srila Prabupada, who
maintained that “if you are a Christian, I want you to be a better Christian; if you are Muslim, I
want you to be a better Muslim.” Joy is willing to share about the Vedas and her Hindu tradition
but says “I am really happy to see other people active in their faiths. We all have the same
mission: to fulfill God’s desire.” The best way to do so this, she is certain, is through service.
She believes we are meant to act as servants of God and of each other.
Her focus now is on the day care center which “encourages children to experience different
beliefs and cultures in an open environment.” Joy notes that the samskaras (human dispositions)
start at conception and quotes the Vedas about the primordial power of sound vibrations. She is
determined that the youngest members in some of New Orleans’s poorest communities hear and
experience what is best and most positive at the start of their lives.
Sam is 30 years old, works as Director of Programs for HandsOn New Orleans and attends “The
Fellowship” Church. He was born and raised in the Pentecostal tradition, growing up in both
black and white neighborhoods around Washington DC. When he was small, Sam’s paternal
grandmother took him to local tent revivals, and at home he would “parrot” her. His parents
began to call him “Pastor.”
In high school he studied cults and other faiths – with an eye to converting their members. Sam
describes himself as very evangelical; he was convinced that only those who personally knew
Jesus were saved. He understood just enough about other faiths to preach to their adherents.
After high school he enrolled in Baylor University, with a strong ambition to be a missionary.
He joined a progressive Baptist church with a Pentecostal flavor and began going on mission
trips, praying and worshipping six hours a day in addition to Bible studies and other activities.
He had taken vows as a teenager and maintained them: he never drank, never smoked, and never
After graduation, Sam felt adrift in his Baptist church and was called to transfer to the
Assemblies of God. There he became a lay minister and began baptizing new members. He led
small groups, counseled college students and took mission trips to India, Ghana, and Haiti.
Eventually, however, he burned out, not having had adequate training in pastoral ministry. At
age 22, he found that he was “walking ahead of people rather than walking among them.”
Sam started to drink, go to clubs and bars and form friendships outside of church, and he began
to embrace his gay identity. His Southern Baptist friends were not accepting, and Sam quietly
left the church. He himself had no concept that one could be both Christian and gay. Sam was
aware of more inclusive denominations like the Unitarians and Episcopalians but dismissed them
as “watered down” churches.
He embarked on a time of self discovery, taking his first secular job with a local nonprofit.
Working in the non-profit field was the closest thing to church work he could find: both were
mission-driven. Sam also discovered at this time that he could be both gay and “sanctified,” i.e.
in process of becoming more like Christ. He began to attend a black Pentecostal church, The
Fellowship, which included among its parishioners not only homosexuals but also HIV/AIDS
patients, sex workers, addicts and the recently incarcerated.
Sam has come to question the idea of saving others rather than looking to empower them. He
believes that all people “are already saved, by the work of the cross and the atonement, for all
time.” Reading the Bible in order to put homosexuality in context has led him to read scripture
differently regarding other issues as well. Sam still believes scripture is divinely inspired, but he
now interprets it in the light of cultural and historical context.
Today, his faith reflects his experience of being a minority. He is no longer trying to convert
others. He is more interested in social justice, gay rights and racial equality. He continues to be
passionate about the Word. And his father still calls him “Pastor.”