The church building that housed the faith community where I grew up sat immediately adjacent to my high school. Only the church’s parking lot separated the two, making it a convenient alternative to the busy main road traffic for many parents and carpools depositing students on weekday mornings.
On my first day of high school, however, the lot sat empty. Chains barricaded the driveway at the entrance. There were certain types of people, I learned, that a few members of our congregation didn’t want hanging out on “our private property.”
But not everyone was excluded. As we drove up to the church, a few men who had volunteered their time at 7:00 AM that Monday morning recognized us as church members and unhooked the chains that barricaded the parking lot entrance to let us through. Outsiders, however, were not welcome.
At a national gathering of college presidents, faculty, staff, campus ministers and students for the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge this week in Washington D.C., my thoughts returned to that morning. Leaders from all over the country gathered at Howard University in the heart of our nation’s capital because of chains like those: barricades that keep one type of person in — and another type of person out.
The leaders who I met this week in D.C., however, don’t believe that those barricades have to exist.
I’m not talking about a group of folks who are interested in blurring the lines between theological and philosophical perspectives. Instead, we’re having a discussion about how our differences don’t have to keep us from relationships that will improve our communities, break down stereotypes, and even inspire us to be better people. These are government officials, college administrators and student activists, interfaith organizers from across the country who are not only passionate about the programs they will run or the projects they will complete but also the leaders they will create.
And that is what the movement is all about.
They are creating leaders who recognize the danger of barricades in church parking lots. They realize what happens when one group tries to keep for itself something that has the potential to benefit the common good. They know what can be accomplished when we refuse to let presumptions and stereotypes get in the way of relationships.
I am inspired by the progress of campuses like Bethel University and Messiah College, who — despite student bodies that largely profess the same core beliefs — believe it crucial to create a learning environment in which Christian leaders are trained to engage a diverse society. They and many of their peer campuses are demonstrating the impact of deliberate steps beyond campus boundaries to create partnerships with communities of different traditions at nearby schools and in neighboring congregations.
But they are not the only ones who deserve applause. I’ve heard the stories this week of colleges and universities that gather students from around the world but are realizing that the mere presence of diversity is not enough. They too see that tomorrow’s leaders must be champions of not just tolerance, but of collaborative action.
I saw this need to create interfaith leaders my first day of high school, when a well-intentioned effort to keep a church parking lot free of litter and loitering became a metaphor for my tradition, the evangelical church. But it has taken the better part of 10 years for me to realize its full meaning, illuminated now by the vision of tomorrow’s leaders.
For the American church, it’s a call to practice hospitality — to remember that Jesus was relationship-oriented, a storyteller, and a servant. And to realize what that means in the context of the most religiously diverse nation in history.
Someday I hope to return to that parking lot for an interfaith service project, where imams and rabbis join evangelical pastors, Sikhs, Buddhists, and religious and nonreligious folks from around the neighborhood in doing something that helps make our community a better place. During that project, we’ll dialogue about what motivates us to serve — a process that catalyzes relationships, creating long-term partnerships between communities once separated by barricades.
When it happens, it will be because of the Bethel Universities, the Messiah Colleges and the hundreds of campuses across the nation that recognized the need for interfaith engagement and created leaders to fill it.
This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post Religion.