By Wendi Wheeler ’06
While Chris Stedman ’08 was studying religion at Augsburg, he avoided engaging in any conversations about the subject of his beliefs, God, or religion. So how did a student who wouldn’t talk about religion manage to graduate, go on to get a master’s degree in religion, and become a prominent and respected voice in interfaith dialogue? He stopped talking about religion and started talking about values.
“I came to Augsburg after a number of years of struggling with religious identity and sexual orientation,” says Stedman, “but I felt like ministry was what I was called to do.” After his first semester, Stedman declared himself an atheist, but he kept quiet about it and continued pursuing a major in religion. In fact, he says he developed a negative stance on religion and God. “I didn’t really want to engage with it on the real world level.”
Stedman worked with Augsburg’s Campus Kitchen program serving meals at the Brian Coyle Center once a week during his first year of college and eventually became a member of the leadership team. The Coyle Center serves many of the Muslim residents in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Even in this environment he was hesitant to engage in dialogue with anyone
about faith or values.
“One day I stayed a little late and had a conversation with a woman, and out of the blue she told me that sometimes she gets really nervous about going out in public because of her hijab [head scarf].” Normally, Stedman recalls, he would have ended the conversation, but he surprisingly found himself saying he could relate with the woman’s feelings because he felt nervous about going out in public with his boyfriend.
“She asked what gives me strength and told me she got hers from Allah,” Stedman says. Later he realized the woman was inviting him into a conversation about values and about how they both lived in the world where people judged them, but he was unwilling at that time to talk more with her.
It wasn’t until after graduation that Stedman began to open up about his values and beliefs. He was working in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities and had a particularly good relationship with one gentleman who often asked Stedman to read to him. One day, he recalls, the man asked Stedman to read from a Lutheran book of prayers.
“My initial instinct was to say no,” Stedman says, but he read with the man. “I expected to feel either very irritated or to have a longing to return to something that was once so important to me, but I felt neither.” Instead, Stedman experienced relief and gratitude because he had shared in an important part of another person’s life.
“We really lose out when we are afraid of those who have different beliefs from ours because it prevents us from engaging and developing meaningful relationships.” This experience served as the beginning of Stedman’s conversion from a silent religion major to a vocal member of the interfaith movement. Today he identifies as a secular humanist, reflecting a philosophy based on reason and compassion that does not include belief in a god. He writes often about seeking respect for religion among the community of nonbelievers, about identifying common values between believers and nonbelievers.
Stedman went on to obtain a master’s degree in religion from the Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago. In the summer following his first year of graduate school, he began an internship with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a program founded by Eboo Patel. IFYC works with young leaders, primarily college students, helping to promote religious pluralism through service to the community.
Stedman is currently the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. He works with Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain, and author of Good Without God. Their work focuses on helping students initiate and organize interfaith service projects and creating positive communities for the nonreligious.
In addition, Stedman is managing director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is also founder of the blog NonProphet Status, a columnist for the Huffington Post, and the youngest contributor to the Washington Post On Faith blog. Currently, he is writing a book for Beacon Press. His speaking engagements focus on fostering positive and productive dialogues between faith communities and the nonreligious.
In the few years he has been doing interfaith work, Stedman says he has learned the value of working and talking with those whose beliefs may be different but whose values are similar to his own. His message to young people, particularly those who are dissatisfied with religion or who identify as nonbelievers, is to get involved. “There is value in organizing around common values and a lot to be gained from working with and learning from religious communities,” Stedman says. He encourages young people not to simply wipe their hands of involvement with religious people but to find communities where their needs can be met.
“I look back on my time at Augsburg and realize I was doing interfaith work, but I left the discussion out of it. Now I am so excited to reclaim that missed opportunity.”