Couchsurfing: An Unlikely Avenue for Interfaith Engagement

July 12, 2013

This post was written by Barbara Gallets, a member of the Georgetown College class of 2015, who works as a research assistant in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

So you’re probably wondering why I want to talk about on an interfaith blog. Couchsurfing is for travelers, not for interfaith work, right? Well, not exactly. It depends on the scope of your definition of interfaith. If by interfaith you mean sitting down and talking with people about their religion, you’re not completely wrong, but takes it one step further. By its very nature, people who “surf” while they travel meet and get to know people from diverse backgrounds, including people with different religious beliefs.
For those of you who do not know what is, it is a website that connects people from around the world who want to travel and meet locals in the areas they visit. People offer their couch as a place for travelers to sleep and they will often show visitors around their city. Not only does it save money while traveling, but it is also a fantastic way to meet people of different faiths and enter into dialogue with them as people.

Though I have not surfed yet, I have been given the chance to immerse myself in DC’s couchsurfing (CS) community. They are a wonderfully diverse group of people from all over the world and believe in different things, yet they have finally made DC feel like my home. My CSer (as we call ourselves) friends come from many religious backgrounds: Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Atheism, Agnosticism, etc. You name it, one of them was raised within that community, or they know someone who was.

But a person’s religion is not the foundation of getting to know someone. Couchsurfing facilitates interfaith work on a basic level that is essential to human interaction. When you meet other CSers, you get to know them as people, not only as Christians or Muslims or Hindus. I believe that this is what makes couchsurfing an effective interfaith tool.

This past week, a small group of us got together to celebrate an iftar, the nightly breaking of the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Three of us were Muslim and three of us were not. We all brought a dish to share and helped prepare our iftar while traditional Moroccan music played in the background. When everything was finally ready, we sat down to enjoy our meal and each other’s company. We did talk about Ramadan since iftar is inseparable from the holy month, but that part of our conversation only lasted long enough for us to laugh about the fact that Muslim countries can never agree on which day marks the beginning of Ramadan. Instead, we talked about everything else, from the deliciousness of the food everyone made to the American citizenship process to what we are planning to do when we grow up.

While this is only a small sample of my interfaith experience as a new CSer, I believe that this kind of dialogue—normal, undirected conversations between people of different faiths—is something that future interfaith efforts should strive to achieve. Interfaith dialogue focuses so much on talking about religion and religious differences that I think it sometimes forgets that we are all human. Though traditionally defined interfaith dialogue creates understanding between people of different faiths, it also draws distinct lines between religious groups, perpetuating the idea of us and them. Couchsurfing breaks through that barrier. My CS friends are Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Agnostics, etc., but their religion is not the first thing I identify them with; first and foremost, my friends are people who—though different in some ways—are still like me.
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Couchsurfing: An Unlikely Avenue for Interfaith Engagement