Dear Members and Friends of the Minnesota Multifaith Network,
I am delighted to be named the new Network Executive for the Minnesota Multifaith Network (MnMN). I am so very impressed by what has been built and how the Network is thriving, especially through the past two+ years of the pandemic. As a means of introduction, I have been asked to share some of my background and experiences that inform my work with a variety of faith traditions. I am happy to do so and look forward to getting to know you as we work toward building relationships across the state.
What excites me about interfaith work will always be the potential we have for building bridges and relationships amongst people—relationships that honor and respect differences and traditions while recognizing what we share. Interfaith engagement is critical today to how we relate as a society as a whole—politically, socio-economically, and civilly. As humans, we often have difficulty perceiving the cultural and ideological barriers that divide us. Through relationship and community building we have the tremendous capacity to transcend those divisions and build peace and justice in our world.
From a young age I have been fascinated with the study of religion and its role in shaping culture. I believe this interest was formed, in part, because, as a child, I moved every four years—from Milwaukee to near Ferguson (Missouri) to the Sonoran Desert in California to South Florida. Most people ask if my family was in the military, but my father was a Lutheran pastor and teacher. As an adult I continued to move. I have lived in Chicago, Indiana, New York City, Colorado, Connecticut, Hong Kong, Scotland, and Paris. I also lived in the Twin Cities in the 1990s. Significantly, to me, Minnesota is the only place I have ever returned to live.
Through residing in so many places, I have observed people living out their faith in a myriad of ways. One of the most significant influences on my vocation arose from a time I lived for three months with a family in rural Niger when I was age 23. The patriarch of this family was the local Imam. He, his wife, and children graciously welcomed me into their household, and I was blessed to observe and experience how they lived out their faith in their daily lives. Their generosity of spirit and the beauty of their tradition opened up a whole world to me that I had hardly known was there. My relationship with them changed my life.
I have spent the entirety of my career engaged with issues of peace and social justice particularly as they concern those who have been marginalized or forgotten by society. My work has focused particularly on the study and practice of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. I consider this my vocation. While with the Refugee Services Program at Minnesota Council of Churches, I organized constituent congregations to sponsor refugees coming to the United States who had no other forms of support such as family, friends, or an established community in Minnesota. This involved building real relationships among people from differing faith and cultural backgrounds. I found that while sponsoring volunteers were often expected to be the positive agents of change in the lives of refugees, they consistently referred to being surprised how they, themselves, were changed, inspired, or transformed by these relationships.
I was so impressed and astounded by this dynamic that I decided to return to school and study theology at the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics (CSRP) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland—a joint venture between the Divinity School and the School of International Relations. There we studied, specifically, the intersections among faith, culture, and politics. My research focused on relationships, community building, and hospitality as understood by the Abrahamic traditions. I took an anthropological approach, and my work was built on a solid foundation of real-world experience and applied theology. While at St. Andrews, I also helped teach World Religions and Anthropology of Religion courses.
Since the early days of my nomadic existence, I have continued to search out the sacred wherever I go. I love visiting temples, mosques, churches, and places of worship or reverence. On a pre-COVID trip to India I was fortunate enough to partake in the Sikh langar meal at Golden Temple in Amritsar; participate in a Tibetan Tea Ceremony at Namgyal Monastery in McLoed Ganj, home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama; have tea with (former) Tibetan President-in-Exile, Lobsang Sangay; and visit Varanasi, the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism. I also have particular theological interest in Jamaican Rastafari, indigenous traditions in central Africa, and syncretic religions of the Caribbean.
Our religious traditions are important. As humans, we long for understanding and connection with what is wonderous, transcendent, and divine. We interpret and live out this understanding in a myriad of traditions across the globe. I believe it only helps us to make sense of life to learn how others experience it too. Our own beliefs and traditions can be further revealed as we learn how they fit into the tapestry of faith that helps shape our world and form the societies in which we live.
I look forward to working with you in these coming years. Minnesota is an exciting place to be when considering matters of faith. There is no place in the country that has built a statewide interfaith network based primarily on relationship building as the Network is working to create. This is exciting work! Plans for the annual gathering this October are underway and I look forward to seeing you there—in person or online.
I mentioned earlier that Minnesota is the only place that I have returned to live. That is no accident. I hold the people of Minnesota in high regard and with the greatest respect. If there is anywhere a multifaith network can thrive, it is here.
Peace to you friends,
Jen Kilps, Ph.D.
Network Executive, MnMN
Email: [email protected]