Author Archives: Greg Damhorst

Service: Breaking Barriers

Screenshot from President Obama's call to interfaith service

This piece was originally posted on the Interfaith Youth Core website as a response to the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.  View the original entry here: http://www.ifyc.org/content/service-breaking-barriers.

Today, the President issued a challenge to pursue interfaith service and cooperation on our campuses. We are asked to think and dream: What if we all came together by the tens, hundreds, or thousands to fight poverty, stop hunger, or speak out on behalf of the marginalized? What if our colleges and universities raised leaders with a passion for interfaith cooperation?

In a time where, all too frequently, religion means difference and difference means conflict, this call to action is as timely as ever. And what better arena for response than the college campus? It is an experiment of cultures and traditions, perspectives and experiences – a focused reflection of broader America.

From my home at the University of Illinois, I have seen the power of interfaith service. I found it in the effort of 5,119 volunteers from Champaign-Urbana, IL who prepared 1,012,640 meals for people of Haiti last year through cooperative service in the wake of the earthquake catastrophe. I also found it in the hearts of the young leaders who were dedicated to creating this event, which we called “One Million Meals for Haiti,” and who continue today to inspire service learning on our campus.

We are Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Humanist, and Protestant, joining with Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh. And when we serve together, we are free. Not free of our differences, but free from the barriers we had created from our differences.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of freedom over 40 years ago, he advanced a notion that continues today. It continues in the lives of those who live in service, and it is a testament to the power of helping others. This is because freedom and service can be one in the same. When we serve together, we are breaking the barriers that drive us apart; we are drowning out the voices of intolerance that would rather destroy than construct.

As an Evangelical Christian, I believe in freedom. And I believe in freedom not just to preserve the ability of choice, but because I desire to live in a country that fosters understanding – understanding that is only achieved through breaking down the barriers that we have constructed out of our differences.
President Obama suggests that we are a nation that affirms the sort of cooperation and service that achieves understanding. As a student at the University of Illinois, as an American, and as a Christian, I am proud of this call to come together.

I am reminded of the words of President Washington, that we are a country “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

This is interfaith cooperation: that we may destroy the barriers of our differences and find good citizenship in serving together.

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Serving Together

This piece was originally published by the Interfaith Youth Core at http://www.ifyc.org/content/serving-together.  While I always intended to re-post it on this site eventually, I think that it is a particularly timely piece given current events.

Whether we are facing the voices of intolerance or problems with health care accessibility, interfaith work has taught me that relationships are the solution to the problems our world faces.

When offensive images depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad appeared on my campus late last spring as part of one group’s protest of censorship and religious extremism, I started to think about the relationships I had with Muslims in my community. After considering those relationships, I understood these images’ significance with a distinctly different perspective than I would have just a few years ago. I realized that the images were not offensive to a faceless and distant religious community, but to my friends.

This empathy is possible because of interfaith relationships. One of those relationships is my friendship with Irfan. Three years ago I started volunteering with the Champaign County Christian Health Center (which we call the “Christian clinic”), providing free medical care to uninsured people in Champaign County. As I soon learned, even the well-run operation at the Christian clinic couldn’t keep up with the needs of our community, and a group from the nearby mosque led by Irfan Ahmad stepped up to help.

As Irfan grew the Avicenna Community Health Center – which is staffed by volunteer medical professionals and students – into a functional weekend clinic, he also built a bridge with the Christian clinic, and the two organizations have since been sharing a facility and together pursuing a goal of seven-days-a-week free healthcare for uninsured people.

Irfan inspires me. In a conversation last spring while shooting a video about the clinics (including a third clinic at the same site, which has recently closed), he explained that all healing is from God, and that the physician is the conduit through which God provides healing.

As a Christian who believes that God inspires and empowers his people to help others, Irfan’s insight reminds me why I am a medical student working on a doctorate in biomedical engineering and pursuing a career fighting global health challenges. He also reminds me that interfaith collaboration can often accomplish more than a single religious community can on its own.

This is what interfaith work means to me: relationships based on common action for the good of others, relationships that easily destroy the barriers built by ignorance and bigotry, and relationships that inspire me as an evangelical Christian to demonstrate the compassion of Christ in response to the needs of the world around me.

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To Bigotry, No Sanction

Image from the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm006.html)

A video hit the web like a brick last week: Orange County residents rallying outside of a Muslim fundraising dinner, shouting “go home,” “why don’t you go home and beat your wife?” and “Muhammad was a pervert.”  (The actual video has been removed from YouTube on copyright claims, but here’s an informative blog entry with a screen shot)

Equally astounding are the public officials shown speaking at events related to the protests – encouraging the voices of intolerance, billing it as American patriotism.

And while there are claims that some of the speeches were taken out of context, it doesn’t detract from the severity of this demonstration.  This is a demonstration of hate.

At one point in the video, a demonstrator yells: “never forget 9/11!”

Yet the faith of the Muslim Americans I know is no more similar to the faith of Islamic extremists than my faith is to that of Eric Rudolph or to other terrorists who have killed in the name of the God of the Bible.  And consider the children who are subject to the jeering–children who are American, who have never known another home but Orange County, California, USA, and who were now being called terrorists by their neighbors.

On the other side of the country, we watch as Peter King prepares to stage “radicalization hearings” on Capitol Hill, putting an entire faith community on trial.

Last Saturday, I attended a dinner hosted by Muslim Americans in my community to talk about love for God and love for the neighbor.  Tomorrow, I will go to work in a lab with Muslim Americans – a lab where we are investigating health technologies to benefit people all over the world.  I will attend class with Muslim American medical students who are studying hard in order to heal, not destroy.  And when I drive home, I will pass a mosque that is one of the strongest voices in Champaign-Urbana for helping those in need and unifying our community.

Yet on Capitol Hill, they are being investigated for terror.

So what is the Christian church to do?  What is our response?

We follow a God who not only said “love you neighbor” but also “love your enemies“.  Yet so many have chosen to take hate for the enemy and project it on to their neighbor.  Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, yet so many have turned in fear on those who would build dialogue and peace.

I am reminded of the words of President George Washington to Moses Seixas, warden of the Jewish synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (actually echoing Seixas’ words from an earlier letter):

For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

As my Muslim friends reminded me at last Saturday night’s dinner, it is the love of one’s neighbor – as Jesus preached – that compels us to make the words of Washington a reality more than 200 years later.

How will you respond?

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Communicating Christ: Reflections from Northwestern University

Last Thursday, I had the great privilege of sharing my passion for interfaith cooperation with a group of evangelical students at Northwestern University’s Multi-Ethnic InterVarsity.

As I described the need for interfaith relationships to combat religious violence and tension, the barriers that keep evangelicals from engaging in interfaith work, and the ways in which interfaith cooperation allows us as Christians to communicate Christ with others, I was met with an encouraging response.

Afterwards, I chatted with one student who desires to build a sustainable project to serve the homeless in Northwestern’s surrounding community of Evanston, IL.  We talked about the great opportunity to grow the impact of one campus fellowship’s efforts by reaching out to student organizations of other faith traditions and creating an interfaith project to serve the homeless.

Another student reminded me of Jesus’ words in the New Testament: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,” reflecting the notion in my faith tradition that, because I am a Christian, my life reflects a quality that no other’s does, and that simply living a life motivated by the example of Christ, I am providing a witness to the core values of my faith.  How exciting, then, to follow the example of Christ by serving others in an interfaith context?

These conversations are the first steps in changing the broader evangelical perspective on a religiously diverse world.  We must tell the stories of positive interaction between faith communities, cast the vision for a world where inter-religious conflict is overcome by enriching relationships, and encourage opportunities to show Christ to the world through our actions.

This gets me thinking.  How would the global church be different if our youth groups organized service projects in their communities with groups from the nearby mosque or temple?  What if our campus fellowships coordinated social events with religious student organizations from other faith traditions?  What if our churches were more hospitable to their neighboring congregations?  What if religious leaders, clergy, and secular leaders alike were getting together to talk about how we can better meet the needs of our communities?

Would we, as Christians, be seen differently?  Would we spend less time quarreling about church budgets and communion practices and more time living, serving, and loving?  Would we be communicating the love of Jesus in a clearer, more effective way?

I think so.  What do you think?

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Where We’re Headed: Beginning a Conversation on Evangelism and Interfaith Work

Faith Line Protestants was born early one Friday morning at a coffee shop at the University of Illinois.  Cameron and I had just represented the U of I at the IFYC‘s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington D.C., and had realized we had something in common– an evangelical perspective on interfaith work.

So as we talked over coffee, we shared our experiences: church congregations that quarreled amongst themselves more than they served others, evangelism strategies that made sharing the gospel seem unnatural and awkward, and the excitement of interfaith work as a new arena for living out our faith.

Hoping to change the discussion regarding interfaith and the evangelical Christian community, we decided to start writing about our thoughts and experiences.  But that’s not because we have it all figured it out.  Cameron and I have discovered something exciting in interfaith work: a practical model for inter-religious cooperation which suggests that religious violence can be ended, social issues can be addressed, and meaningful relationships can be established between disparate peoples.

Though at first we thought we’d be simply making the case for interfaith involvement, we’re really beginning a journey of exploring the intersection of interfaith work and evangelism.  There seems to be an unnecessary tension between the Biblical imperatives to “make disciples of all nations” and to “love your neighbor,” to proselytize and to practice respect.  Individually convinced by the reasons for interfaith involvement discussed in our previous posts, we’ve dived in and have been unpacking this tension along the way.

While we don’t yet have a thorough way of articulating our discoveries, we realize that we are compelled to be not just participants, but leaders of interfaith cooperation.  And we would like to suggest that honest participation in interfaith work might even be a better witness than many of the “best practices” for evangelism which we have been taught through our Christian education.

This is a call to other evangelicals who are sick of seeing the man on the quad, holding a sign that says “God hates gays” and yelling about an impending hell.  It is a call to those who struggle with the awkwardness of forced spiritual discussions and cold-turkey proselytization.  It is a call to those who desire to make known the love of Christ in a genuine way.

We move forward with further discussion on the evangelism-interfaith tension; we have stories of relationships and convictions, frustrations and inspirations.  We’ll look to current events and Biblical themes for an understanding of how and why we approach interfaith work as evangelicals.  You are invited to respond, to argue, and to discover with us.

 

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Photo by pop catalin (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/catalin82)

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Feeding the Hungry: an Example that Compels us Toward Interfaith Work

Just over a year ago I was on a train home to visit my parents in the Chicago suburbs when my cell phone rang. It was my mother, who was calling to gauge my interest in a family service project packaging meals for Haiti.

Envisioning a room somewhere in a church basement with a pile of canned goods, miscellaneous boxes, and a junior high youth group, I was shocked when we walked into a former hardware store in Elgin, IL to roughly 1,000 energized volunteers filling box after box with packages of a nutritious rice, soy, vegetable, and vitamin blend – all the while chatting and dancing excitedly.

Somewhere along the way, the excitement caught me. Coming from a student organization at the University of Illinois–Interfaith in Action–with a rich history of organizing service projects, I wanted to see such an endeavor staged on my campus.

This is where the story of interfaith cooperation catches fire.

I brought the idea to a small group of friends – the “executive committee” that organized Interfaith in Action’s programs. We were an Evangelical Christian, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Humanist, and we set out to plan an event at which our campus could package these meals for Haiti.

I got a hold of the cell phone number for Rick McNary, founder of Numana, Inc., with whom I discussed the logistics of the project. We started a search for facilities to host the event, the money to fund the event, and the volunteers to staff the event. During the process, we connected with the regional office of the Salvation Army who connected us with the local corps at the same time that a phone call from Washington, D.C. out of the Salvation Army World Service Office confirmed that a federal grant was going to fund our project.

With that, a community-wide, multi-faith endeavor was born. The event was moved to an abandoned Hobby Lobby building on the west side of Champaign and staff from Numana, Inc. flew in prepare for the event.

In a single weekend, 5,112 volunteers from every walk of life, faith and philosophical tradition passed through that site to lend a hand. In less than 12 hours, 1,012,640 meals were packaged for shipment to Haiti where they were protected by the 82nd airborne and distributed by Salvation Army humanitarian workers.

This is a story of coming together, it’s a story of cooperation, and it’s a story of interfaith work. As an evangelical, this is a snapshot of how I desire to live out my faith. To do so alongside people who I desire to show the compassion of Jesus makes it an even more compelling endeavor.

Jesus said “I was hungry and you brought me something to eat.” Consider the significance of inviting others to join in such an activity. If you ask me, this is a simple yet profound way to communicate the compassion of Christ, meet the needs of the world, and build a better community.

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More photos of the Million Meals for Haiti event in Champaign,  IL can be found here or by navigating www.uiucinterfaith.org.

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What Being a Peacemaker Really Looks Like

In the introduction to his book, Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel opens with an account of the trial of Eric Rudolph.  Though perhaps most known for detonating bombs at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Rudolph also bombed several other sites in the two years following the Olympics before he went into hiding in the Appalachian wilderness.  Patel describes how Rudolph showed no remorse for his actions:

“In fact, Rudolph is proud and defiant.  He lectures the judge on the righteousness of his actions.  He gloats as he recalls federal agents passing within steps of his hiding place.  He unabashedly states that abortion, homosexuality, and all hints of ‘global socialism’ still need to be ‘ruthlessly opposed.’  He does this in the name of Christianity, quoting from the New Testament: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’”

Rudolph faced a world different from the one he had constructed in his mind.  The moral code he had internalized didn’t match with what he saw going on around him.  And he decided that the way to reconcile these differences was to murder and destroy.

I believe we all face the crisis that Eric Rudolph faced.  When our faith traditions provide guidelines for what is right and wrong, we will encounter others who live by a different standard.  We will find those with whom we disagree.  The tension may be moral, theological, or preferential.

So how do we respond?  Thankfully, very few respond the way Eric Rudolph did.  For Christians, the Bible provides clear direction on why Rudolph’s actions were wrong.  But I know many Christians who would respond with violence of another form.  A violence that others do not see, but exists nonetheless.  I know because I’m guilty of such violence as well.

I’m referring to the violence we commit in our hearts – the judgment we pass as we perceive someone in an act of “wrongdoing,” the pride we feel when we interpret our lives to be more excellent than another’s, the righteousness upon which we gloat as others fall below our personal standards.  While such responses are devoid of the violence that placed Rudolph in prison with four consecutive life terms, they also lack the quality that could have caused Rudolph to build bridges instead of bombs: love.

The Bible tells the story of Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).  Zacchaeus was a tax collector (and possibly a cheating one at that) and the sort of man about whom others muttered under their breath (Luke 19:7).  Whether it was his fault or not, you might say that Zacchaeus was the kind of person with whom religious people disagreed.  But instead of joining in the muttering, Jesus invited himself to be Zacchaeus’ guest, shocking those around him who would rather criticize Zacchaeus than associate with him.

What if Eric Rudolph had a real understanding of the Christian faith instead of a warped understanding of justice?  Imagine how this world would be different if he had pursued peace instead of violence, but with the same determination.  Instead of building bombs, he would have been building relationships, instead of lashing out with violence, he would have been reaching out through service.

In a famous sermon depicted in the New Testament, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9).  I believe that when Christians build relationships instead of condemning those with whom we don’t agree (whether it is morally or theologically), we are being peacemakers.  In a world where violence is used too often to solve issues of religious difference, our faith compels us to be at the forefront of making peace.

Thus, we are also compelled to be interfaith leaders.  And remarkably, when we create interfaith relationships, we find that there is plenty about which we do agree.  These are not realizations that blur the boundaries between religions, but understandings that we are better working together for positive change.  When we are building bridges instead of bombs – that is when we are peacemakers.

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Bridge photo by ivanmarn (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/ivanmarn)

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Reflections on a Snapshot of Religious Cooperation in Egypt

originally posted by @NevineZaki on Twitter

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t pay enough attention to what is going on in the world around me.  Typically, my eyes are fixed on a pair of computer screens: coding a problem for class on one, a half-composed e-mail sitting open on the other.  Or I’m wrapped up in a textbook, trying to stay awake, note cards scattered around me, studying for that next exam.  I’m an MD/PhD student, so perhaps I have an excuse.  But then again, maybe I don’t.

I do what I can to catch glimpses of the reality beyond my routine.  Which, at best, means grabbing my phone during a free minute or a boring lecture to skim a series of RSS feeds, tweets, and headlines.  This week, one tweet in particular caught my eye and caused me to sit back for a moment to reflect.

At the church where I grew up, there were a few older gentleman who consistently reminded us to be praying for our troops.  It gave me the impression that these fellas sat around all day with nothing else to do, so they made a hobby of following the men and women serving our country and risking their lives outside the States, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But I think that they were actually on to something.  There are bigger things going on in the world – things that, at the very least, deserve our prayerful attention.

Amidst the unrest in Egypt, a picture was tweeted across the globe this week, often with an #interfaith hash tag, showing Christians joining arms to protect Muslims during prayer.  This almost seemed to reciprocate the human shield formed around a Coptic Christmas mass just a few weeks ago by Egyptian Muslims as a protest against Islamic militants.

As I paused for another “what would Jesus do?” reflection, I began to realize what this act represented.  In a society where order is crumbling to the ground and protests are escalating to violence, what is more profound than a bold reminder that many Egyptians dream of a country where people of diverse backgrounds work together to preserve freedom?

As we’ve started to build Faith Line Protestants over the past few weeks, one theme has remained persistent in my thoughts: love your neighbor.  To me, defending another’s freedom to practice their faith – even when that faith is not your own – is an act of love.  As a citizen of a nation built on ideas like religious freedom, I realize the significance of this notion which, depicted in the picture above, inspires me as I pray for safety and peace in Egypt during the days ahead.

How does this inspire you?  Let us know by commenting here or sharing with us on our Facebook page.

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