This blog originally appeared on Talking Taboo, a forum for Christian women to explore the unspeakable experiences of their faith.
There’s a moment when I meet someone new and I’m asked what I do for a living where I look down at my watch and calculate whether or not I have enough time to explain that I work for an interfaith organization – and what that means for me as a born again Christian.
I’m a medium sized town Baptist girl from North Carolina. I made my profession of faith when I was nine years old by asking Jesus to come into my heart and hopping into our church’s beloved “dunking booth” to be baptized. I’m a born again Christian who does interfaith work for a living at an organization in Chicago called Interfaith Youth Core, which seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, and I’ve been at it now for almost seven years. When I tell some of my Christian brothers and sisters what I do for a living, I get a range of reactions: furrowed brows, polite head nods, enthusiastic reactions, and challenging, critical statements about my chosen career path. Here are some of most common examples of push back I get within my own community and how I respond:
“You aren’t a real Christian if you do interfaith work.” There are common misconceptions about interfaith work – that it means everyone should all be a part of one big religion or it implies that everyone essentially believes the same thing we’re just taking different paths. Neither of these definitions describes the interfaith movement I belong to. At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between folks of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. That means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist – and you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe). We may not agree about who gets into heaven, or if heaven exists at all. We may be divided across political lines. But we can all agree that hunger is a problem in our community and we should tackle it together because when we start from a place of shared values and combine our social capital, we are better together.
“Interfaith work isn’t biblical.” There are many biblical arguments for interfaith work. My friend and IFYC alum Nick Price, former InterVarsity staffer and pastor in training, wrote a three part blog series on sharing his theological framework for interfaith cooperation. My theology of interfaith cooperation starts at the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to an expert in the law who wants to know how Jesus defines the “neighbor” that you are called to love as you love yourself. There are four Greek words for love in the Bible – the specific word for love used here is “agape” which means a full and complete love. And who is our neighbor? In the story, the Samaritan, who was someone from the oppressed group in that time, showed compassion and mercy to the Jewish man who was robbed and left for dead. Jesus is emphasizing the importance of caring for your neighbor especially when that person is from a different background and tradition from your own. Engaging in interfaith work gives me that opportunity to love and serve alongside those that are my neighbors, as well as to talk about Jesus as the inspiration for my life.
“You’ll get converted if you do interfaith work.” Engaging in interfaith work has only strengthened my identity as a Christian. Many non-Christians have asked me questions about my faith story and different tenants in my tradition that have challenged me to go back to my Christian community to get answers. My favorite question was from a young Muslim girl who wanted me to explain the relationship between Jesus and Santa Claus. Learning about other traditions hasn’t made me want to convert or let go of my faith, in fact, quite the opposite. For example, when I learned that many of my Muslim friends pray five times a day and I juxtaposed that against my paltry two prayers a day, that inspired me to take a hard look at my own prayer life and consider how often I’m spending time with my Lord and Savior. Another example was when I first started at IFYC and encountered a Catholic mother who was reticent to send her son to our programs. He was barely interested in church as it was, she explained, and she didn’t want him coming away from the faith. After spending time with folks from other traditions and talking about his faith in a new way, this sixteen year old kid came home and expressed an interest in going to seminary. She promptly called our office and asked if we could get her other son immediately involved in our programs.
I believe the Christian community has a biblical calling to interfaith work. I also believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. I don’t have to compromise my deeply held beliefs to engage in interfaith work. I am a born again Christian. I am an interfaith leader. I do interfaith work not despite the fact that I’m a Christian, but I do it because I am a Christian. Many other folks in the Christian community are starting to recognize the importance of engaging in interfaith work. I invite you to join us.