By Paige Schlichte
Extremism, hatred, bigotry, violence — these are all things Interfaith Alliance of Iowa aims to tackle through its Listening Tour, a road trip to Iowa communities intended to foster discussion about civil rights and freedom of religion issues that exist on a local, state, and international scale.
The Listening Tour made a stop at the Sanctuary Pub, 405 S. Gilbert St., on Thursday night to hear the opinions and concerns of Iowa City community members.
Interfaith Alliance is a nonpartisan, statewide organization that aims to protect religion and democracy by championing the rights of individuals and empowering voices, said Connie Ryan, the executive director of the group.
“We tackle a lot of issues in the public sphere, whether it be protecting individual civil rights for people who are LGBTQ+, immigrants, or religious minorities,” Ryan said. “We want to ensure that religion is not used to discriminate against people.”
Ryan said while the ever-increasing issues of hatred and bigotry are rooted in human nature are very difficult to resolve completely, people can do better in their communities and as a nation. The Listening Tour intends to shed a light on these issues in Iowa’s communities and build relationships to take a stand.
“The tour is twofold — to hear what people think or are experiencing in different communities but also as an outreach to determine how we can partner together in this important work,” Ryan said.
So far, the Listening Tour has visited Ames and Iowa City; its future stops include Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Davenport, Oskaloosa, and Des Moines.
Sue Dvorsky, Iowa City’s board member for Interfaith Alliance, said Iowa City seemed like a logical stop on the tour because it is home to a great deal of civic engagement among all age groups.
“We’re looking to increase our reach to young people, and of course, here we are in Iowa City sitting on a treasure trove of civically minded and engaged young people,” Dvorsky said. “It seemed like a perfect spot.”
The discussion started with a simple question: What gives you hope?
“We’re one day closer to the 2020 election,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, joked in reply. “We’ve survived one more day.”
The discussion then changed to: What worries you? Ryan expressed her concerns about religion being misused as justification for discrimination, particularly against women, those who are LGBTQ+, and people who are of other faiths.
Concerns were not only limited to religious concerns; topics ranged from state policy to affordable housing to community diversity.
“Here in Iowa City, I believe we have an inflated sense of how liberal and accepting we might be here,” event participant Susanne Watson Epting said.
Dvorsky noted that while Iowa City is well-known statewide for being a progressive community, there is still room for improvement. These gaps in areas of social-justice issues were extensively discussed.
“Race and LGBTQ+ inclusion is an issue here as much as anywhere else,” Dvorsky said. “There’s no question that we have work to do. However, there are also lots of progressive congregations and communities of faith here who put a high premium on inclusion. I think there’s kind of a fertile ground here to have a conversation about these issues.”