Student Intern Documenting Interfaith Experiences on Instagram

Date Posted: 2/23/2017

University of Houston senior Erica Petersen is sharing stories of religious diversity as a part of her internship at Holy Family.
A millennial and a cell phone can be a powerful combination, especially when your name is Erica Petersen and you use ‘said phone’ to record and post positive stories of racial and religious diversity. A senior Human Development and Family Studies major at University of Houston, Erica is serving a semester-long internship alongside Rev. Jacob Breeze in an innovative new faith community in east downtown Houston called Holy Family, started by Chapelwood UMC Houston.
“I wanted to emphasize interfaith in my internship due to all of the recent hate crimes and increased prejudice against members of Islam,” she shares. She created the Instagram @whollyfamilytx in an effort to put faces to various religions and create a small platform for different experiences of faith to be heard. I also wanted my classmates and members of Holy Family to see what I'm working on.”
The internship has been an ideal backdrop for this inspired initiative. “Right after the election,” she shares, “I knew I wanted to do something that would help our Muslim brothers and sisters because I can’t imagine what these next four years are going to be like for them. As a Christian, I’m in a place of privilege, and I wanted to utilize that to set an example that devout Christians can engage in interfaith activities and do it peacefully and without an agenda.”
Erica, raised Catholic until her teen years, initially met Rev. Jacob Breeze at St. Mark’s UMC on Pecore, and began attending events when he started Holy Family. Holy Family is really great because we’re all different ages, different colors, different backgrounds, and different sexual orientations. It’s what I imagine Jesus would want, and I couldn’t imagine a better church to embrace interfaith dialogue.”
Her depth of involvement in this new faith community has been boosted through the student internship. She says, “Jacob is really great at connecting with people. He invites people to church everywhere he goes – from the coffee shop to the barbershop. Likewise, I bring my friends from college to Holy Family events all the time.”
Adds Erica, “I’m friends with people from all different religious backgrounds and I’m very open with talking about God and religion, so my friends know at some point I’m bringing them to church. But at the same time, I go to their church/religious events as well.”  
To celebrate diversity she says she has been interviewing anyone who volunteers. “UH is a racially and religiously diverse school, so finding people of various religions hasn’t been all that difficult. I’ve had really great reactions to my page.”
For example, Farhan, who was the first person she interviewed, says his mom asks him to show her the new posts because she loves what Erica is doing. Adds Erica, “After I posted about Fatema, a Muslim girl in Saudi Arabia, I got an email from a stranger to the whollyfamily account, saying that he lives in Saudi Arabia and is proud of what I’m doing. I interviewed a girl named ‘Sam’ who was struggling with her conservative Christian values and her sexuality, and a girl whom I’ve never met messaged me saying that she is so happy she’s not alone.”
Adds Erica, “All of my friends and professors have also been incredibly supportive. I haven’t gotten any sort of negative feedback, which I’m grateful for. I asked for volunteers on my personal instagram and Facebook and I posted about it on a University Facebook page. My goal is to get 50 people to participate by the end of the semester. So far I’ve been averaging 2-3 a week, which may allow me to hit this goal if I work up to graduation.” 
She is attracted to interfaith work because she most clearly sees God at work when love for neighbors surpasses any label or stereotype. She adds. “At UH, there is the same group of about 5 homeless people who hang around on the outskirts of campus. I drive with my window down and will sometimes make conversation. That’s happened enough times so now they recognize me and ask me how my classes are going and wish me luck in finding a parking spot. That’s God. In that moment of conversation we’re two people, created by God, talking. I forget that they’re homeless. I see God at work when we acknowledge racism and work to fight it because we know God made us all equal. I see it when a Muslim and Christian share a meal. I think God created us to be different and I want to embrace that.”
The internship experience has been an important step in her faith journey. “Jacob gave me a syllabus with weekly readings that have allowed me to become more versed in my Christian faith,” she shares. “I participate in church meetings now and I’ve been talking with Interfaith Houston to help me make this experience more meaningful to Holy Family. I’m learning so much and this opportunity has really allowed me to focus on my faith and where God is leading me after graduation. Maybe I would have gotten more ‘practical experience’ had I interned elsewhere, but I wouldn’t be getting as much out of it. God wants me here and I want to be here.”