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National Sikh Figure Is Keynote Speaker At Illinois Wesleyan Interfaith Summit

Courtesty of Valarie Kaur
Valarie Kaur, founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, is the keynote speaker at Illinois Wesleyan University's first ever Interfaith Summit this weekend.

Activist Valarie Kaur acknowledges that many people "want to gag" when she starts talking about love as the spark for social change. She tries to convince them she is advocating for a "revolutionary love" that is the best answer to solving many of society's problems.

"I'm a lawyer and for most of my life when people used the word love, I would roll my eyes. They would use the word love as a feel-good feeling, and if love is just a feeling it is too fickle, too anemic to be a political force," Kaur, an author and filmmaker, said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

Kaur will be the keynote speaker and lead a workshop this weekend at Illinois Wesleyan University's first Interfaith Summit, sponsored by the chaplain's office. She was interviewed by Skype from Costa Rica, where she had been working on a book.

A member of the Sikh faith, a religion that stresses unity and social justice, Kaur said her public activism arose after the tragedy of 9/11. She began making films and leading campaigns to combat hate.

"I sat down and really thought about what has actually created change in the communities we serve," Kaur said.

"It was never just our film, our lawsuit or our campaign. It came down to an unexpected question: Is love present here? Are people receiving love in the wake of atrocity? Are they leading with love? Are they sustaining their fight in love?"

Kaur said she "started thinking about love as revolutionary." In 2016, she left her post at the Stanford Law School and found the Revolutionary Love Project.

The birth of her son was also the impetus for her project.

"He is a little brown boy who keeps his hair long as a part of our Sikh faith," Kaur said. She said she feared for his safety after hate crimes jumped after the 2016 election.

She decided to talk about love through a distinctly feminine lens, as a daughter, granddaughter and mother.

“If we can talk about a revolutionary love through a feminist lens, it’s perhaps what our generation and current political climate needs," she said.

As young Sikh child growing up in California, Kaur said she too experienced prejudice. 

"I was this little brown girl with two long braids and I had kids call me a black dog because I wasn’t white, or tell me I was going to hell because I wasn’t Christian," she recalled.

She would cry to her grandfather who reminded her that people of their faith fight for justice through love.

"Refuse to hate them even when they hate you and fight for (your enemies) when they are in harm’s way," Kaur said her grandfather told her.

Kaur said the successful social movements begun by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandala and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, were all “rooted in the ethic of love."

Watch Kaur's Ted Talk from 2017:

Another turning point in her life, she said, came just after 9/11 when the first person killed after the attack in a hate crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man who was a friend of her family's. He was mistaken for a Moslem.

"The response of (his) community was to come to his memorial in the thousands and grieve with his family. I saw the power of love there," Kaur recalled.

"Forgiveness is not forgetting, it is freedom from hate," she added.

"When I say love we should love our opponents, it is not just moral, it is a pragmatic call. The more we see the wound in the people who hurt us, the more we can point our swords and shields at the institutions that allow them to hurt us. That is the only way we are going to change the policies that allow cycles of violence to continue," Kaur said.

Kaur maintains there is one central "entry point" to arriving at this place of love. "It is wonder," she said.

"If we can look at faces of people who don’t look like us, and even disagree with us, and wonder about them and why they say or do or act act they do, and wonder about them, then we see that they are just as internally plural and complex as we are. We can open ourselves to their pain and their story."

In recent years, Kaur has become increasingly active in interfaith efforts. She said she believes in the effectiveness of these efforts.

"Every day, I am organizing with faith leaders across the spectrum. When we come together to organize around shared moral imperatives, we unlock the full potential of our individual faith traditions and it is so powerful."

She said interfaith collaboration is increasing but still "not happening enough."

Her keynote talk will be at 7 p.m. Friday at Illinois Wesleyan's Hanson Student Center. Her workshop, titled "Building a Movement for Revolutionary Love Across Campus and Community," will take place Saturday morning at 9:30 in the Turfler Room of Wesleyan's Memorial Center.

The interfaith summit is free and open to the public.

Kaur said she has a message for today's students still hurting in the wake of the shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

"Young people are standing up to take the lead in this movement right now. I will say to them, I will follow you and help you ground your activism in revolutionary love."

You can also listen to GLT's full interview:

GLT's interview with Kaur.

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