• Caroline Penfield

Where Will Your Ripples Go?

When I was first asked to direct The Ripple Conference, Elon’s annual, regional, interfaith conference, two years ago, I was sitting in an office with two people who had become trusted mentors over my first 6 months of college and someone who had become a close friend over that time. Joel and Carrie asked Catherine and I if we would want to direct the conference we had just attended. As a first year student, this was both an honor and completely terrifying. Catherine, my friend and soon to be co-director, and I eventually agreed to take on the job together with lots of objections to our qualifications. I was nervous about those who thought I would be too young, too inexperienced, and overall not deserving of the role of director. Two years later, as I reflect on directing my second annual conference, I am more grateful than ever for the mentors who believed in us and everyone who worked on Ripple 2020 and 2021. We could have never guessed that we would be holding a virtual conference in one of the most communally traumatic years of our lives. I have worked with a passionate student team and supportive advisors, met incredible guest speakers and attendees, and learned so much about myself, others, and interfaith cooperation.

My first Community Group at Ripple 2019

The theme for Ripple 2021 was first dreamt of only a few weeks after Ripple 2020. There were many we threw around as possibilities, but Intersectional Interfaith gave us the opportunity to work with other campus departments we were so excited to partner with and to explore elements essential to interfaith, but that are often not the center of our work. We of course had no idea, planning early last spring, that the country would be in a place much more open to and prepared for having these conversations. Several of our speakers, including Blair Imani and Kaitlin Curtice, experienced their platforms expand over the summer as the country looked to those leading the conversation about systemic racism. We wanted Ripple to be a space where participants could bring their full selves, and knew that to do this we had to create space for the identities that we hold the closest, that inform our worldviews, to be honored and explored.

Allison Pelyhes and I watching our keynote at Ripple 2021

We chose a keynote speaker, Blair Imani, who is not only a historian and educator who can speak to the importance of recognizing identity in social movements, but who has plenty of her own experience with intersecting identities, including being of a minority faith in the United States. Our panelists were chosen carefully to form a conversation that we knew would be authentic to who they each were as they gave their perspective on interfaith cooperation. Breakout sessions gave space for participants to examine the systems of oppression and privilege that our intersecting identities create. One of the most intentional spaces we created was new this year. During the middle of the second day of Ripple we offered affinity groups for those with like identities to gather, discuss, and debrief. Deciding which identities to offer spaces for was a challenge in that we did not want to leave anyone out, but also did not want to provide an unstructured space where someone did not feel supported. In the end, we offered five or six groups over two hours, led by some of the people I am truly most grateful for looking back at the weekend. These facilitators held space with vulnerability and authenticity.

In my first year as director, I think I made the mistake of not fully enjoying the breakout sessions I sat in on. I felt like there was always somewhere else I needed to be or something I should be doing. One of the benefits of being virtual this year was that there were no spaces that constantly needed to be converted to a different setup, meals to arrange, or someone to guide around campus. I felt like I could be fully present in the breakout sessions I attended, and I am so glad I was. Two Ripple team alumni put together a virtual Red Tent space, mirroring one of our most meaningful spaces at the conference, and I got to sit in the breakout session for this space. We explored rest and resistance, talking about how we cannot use the tools of oppressive systems for liberation. Later, Olivia Elder’s session focused on our justice system and how we are so used to the system we have that we often accept it as the only way. She talked about expanding your imagination to imagine a society where justice is the center, based on community, love, and family-values she takes from her faith. In my last session of the day, led by Kaitlin Curtice, I realized I had not even expanded my imagination enough to imagine all that Ripple could be. As I listened to Kaitlin and conference attendees have very honest conversations about White supremacy, Christian supremacy, and decolonizing religion, I realized that in all my planning and intentionality with the theme, I had not even let myself imagine that Ripple would be a place where others authentically critically examined these concepts that sometimes seem too big, too old, and too established, to move.

I would have loved to see all those faces in one room on Elon’s campus. I would have loved to build a relationship with a stranger and end the weekend in hugs and handshakes. There were points before the conference when I was so afraid no one would come, or they wouldn’t be engaged, or we would fumble our portrayal of the theme. But I am renewed in my passion for interfaith work and the vision for what that means to my campus and larger communities by the people who chose to sit on Zoom calls with us all weekend, talking, learning, laughing, forgiving me when I accidentally end a call in the middle of a Shabbat service. These past two years working on this conference have taught me so much about myself, others, higher education, relationships, and planning intentional events. Words cannot describe how thankful I am for that initial meeting with Carrie and Joel and every one after with Allison, Catherine, Elle, Jan F., Jan R., Megan, Holly, Whitney, Liz, Michelle, Emerson, Caroline D., Brittany, Katie, Chloe, Lara, Hannah, Lily, Hailey, Ivy, Shane, Betsy, Hillary, and so many more (is this what it feels like at an award show when you know you’ll forget to thank someone incredibly important??). Every single one of you has had a profound impact on me, this campus, and our interfaith community.

Ripple 2020

Ripple has poured more into me than I could ever give to it, and I am thankful to every single person who allowed me this space and time.

I have to put in a plug that if you’re interested in interfaith work and might want to be part of the planning team (whether or not you are an Elon student), reach out to the Truitt Center at truittcenter@elon.edu.

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