Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith whose mission is to build a globally movement of religiously-diverse youth to counter religious violence and end global poverty. World Faith is an interfaith organization that tackles interfaith obstacles by working on common problems. I believe the humanist community can learn a lot about how to do service and how to do interbelief work from this model. So I had a few questions for him.
Before founding World Faith, Frank worked in the music industry. Frank also started Mean Communications, a consulting firm assisting nonprofits and startups with branding, social media, pr, and marketing. He is also an active blogger, contributing to blogs on issues ranging from business, technology, religion, and music, including the Huffington Post. He is Fellow Alumnus of YouthActionNet, Soliya, IFYC, and AMENDS at Stanford. He has been interviewed on Good Morning America, NPR, New York Magazine, and various international media outlets.
Wendy Webber: Why is interbelief work important to you personally?
Frank Fredericks: I grew up in Battle Ground, Washington, which is a very small, boring town in the Pacific Northwest. Our idea of religious diversity was the one LDS temple and Catholic church in the whole county. I, like many others, grew up moderately religious, and in middle school joined an evangelical community that really marked a spiritual awakening for me.
Fast forward, and I went from small town USA to New York City, which was about as antipodal as possible. This journey forced me to humanize people very different from me, whether religiously different, LGBT, racial diversity, and even introduced me to the growing number nonreligious young people of my own generation. This was most salient with the Muslim community, being in New York in the post-Sept 11th context.
This led me to go to Egypt and conduct independent research on Christian-Muslim relations. While I was there, I noticed that while most people “tolerated” each other and “coexisted” (terms I find insufficient), all it took is for someone to throw a rock through the window of a church or mosque for six to be dead by morning. I wanted to know ‘what made violence so easy?’ and ‘Why is it typically young people?’ These questions led me on a journey that resulted in the founding of World Faith.
WW: How is interbelief work important to World Faith’s mission to counter violence and end global poverty?
FF: World Faith is mobilizing a global movement of young people with diverse world views to tackle global poverty – and lower religious violence while doing so.
We believe there are two drivers of religious conflict; narratives of ‘other-ism,’ and the economic context that makes violence possible. To be clear, this isn’t engaging the issue of theology or doing ‘dialogue.’ Rather, we are addressing the sociological phenomenon of religious identity, and the inter-group dynamics that can either be religious violence at its worst, or interfaith collaboration at its best. With this in mind, we’ve had 4,000 volunteers volunteer over 150,000 hours of service, directly impacting the lives of over 200,000 people in 14 countries.
WW: Have humanists and atheists effectively participated in World Faith projects?
FF: We have had humanist, atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious participation on every level of the organization. Our current board includes Chris Stedman, the Executive Director of Yale Humanist Community, as well as other nonreligious members as well. We’ve had nonreligious leaders, staff, and volunteers, and inevitably had nonreligious and atheist beneficiaries, although we don’t have the data to prove that.
Also, from top to bottom, many times the presence of atheists, humanists, and the nonreligious is understated. That is because in many countries we work people have a legally established religious identity, based on their parents and the community they were raised in, and not on their own profession. Therefore, many go by their “official” religious status, and not the one that accurately describes their worldview.
WW: What specific obstacle(s) have you encountered in interbelief work? And do you have ideas about how to overcome it/them?
FF: While our work publicly is focused on countering the narratives of violence, and the message of those who perpetrate it, we rarely are interacting with those forces head on. Rather, our struggle is often dealing with inertia, apathy, and risk-aversion.
We have inertia from those working with older models of interfaith and interbelief work, who focus on religious leaders (read old men) from established religious institutions. Our whole model is focused on getting young people to take action rather than old people talking, so often times there’s no real interest to engage with our model.
We find apathy with some young people who care about the issues we’re addressing, but simply not enough to actually dig in and do the work. While there’s an exciting mass of young people who do work with us, I know that it’s easier to get a Retweet than a commitment for someone to come volunteer for an hour. Like with any movement, we see this simply as opportunities for people to step up and or step back based on their dedication, availability, and skills.
Lastly, sometimes we are pioneering new models in exciting places, which are under-researched, under-funded, and possibly even dangerous. As a result, we occasionally find funders to be risk-averse. We are a young organization working in scaling places on big problems. That sounds, and truthfully is, somewhat “risky.” However, the great counter to that is that we’re socially entrepreneurial, and have gotten significant support from social entrepreneurial organizations who seek out frontline innovators like us to develop and support.
I believe that these challenges do not define us, but by addressing them, they have helped us become a better organization. Admittedly, not all lessons are learnt as easily as the next.
WW: In what ways can atheists engage more effectively with faith communities?
FF: While I don’t believe the impetus is really on atheists to engage, I do believe that there are a few ways that they could become more involved in interbelief work.
Firstly, I’ve heard the claim from some that as a nonreligious person they have nothing in common with religious people. This is a pretty ridiculous claim, when it comes to experience, narratives, and especially values. I’ve met humanists who are dedicated to social justice, and their humanism is the inspiration for their justice work. I also know religious folks whose religious tradition informs their call to create a more just world. This shared value creates a huge opportunity for interbelief collaboration.
However, it will be crucial for people of faith to treat nonreligious people with equal dignity and respect. Insinuating that without God we’d all be murderous heathens is a clear infringement of that idea, but often times it’s more subversive, from innocent but misguided questions to simply using language that is not inclusive. There’s much work to be done on this front, but I don’t believe we can succeed in making a safer and more prosperous world without it.