Author Archives: Rachael McNeal

Living the Gospel through Interfaith Cooperation

1331637_77494961
I work in the Interfaith Center at University of North Florida in Jacksonville, FL. Several months back my boss and I met with a leader in the local LGBT community looking for ways to collaborate on student programming. In the meeting this leader was trying to better understand the purpose and vision of the Interfaith Center. In the process she asked how I identify myself religiously. I hesitated a moment before answering, then responded, “I identify as an Evangelical Christian.”
Why hesitate? Well, I wasn’t quite “out” at work as an Evangelical. Certainly my boss was mostly aware, but many of my students weren’t. For the most part my Evangelicalism wasn’t something I went around advertising – I don’t have a Jesus fish on my car nor do I wear cross necklace and I don’t (usually) blast Chris Tomlin from my office.

The LGBT community leader then stunned me with her follow up question: “What do you mean when you say you’re an ‘evangelical?'”

Why stunned? Well, I had never been asked this question before. Certainly I’d thought about it in my frantic attempt at articulating identity in seminary, but had certainly never been asked. So I hesitated, again, then said,

“When I say I’m an Evangelical, I mean that I believe there’s good news in Jesus for everyone.”

I admit that I was nervous about how this would be received as it was not my intention to proselytize in any way. But because I believe there’s good news in Jesus for everyone, if I’m being really honest with myself and others, I also want everyone to know Jesus.

We can get into questions about the meaning of salvation and eternity, the cross and the resurrection, grace, covenant, and all of that another time, but when I whittle it down to the lowest common denominator, everything (well okay, I’m a sinner so not everything) I do comes from my love for Jesus and my desire for others to know Christ.

Evangelical comes from the Greek evangelion which means “good news,” or gospel, so to be Evangelical is to be “of the good news” in word, deed and being.

What is the Good News?

The Good News, for me, is that God loves us.

We can make it more complicated than that, but for me the greatest news of all is that I am loved unconditionally by the creator of the universe simply for being; thus in being of that good news it is my responsibility to reflect the love of God to the best of my limited ability in all I do.

It is easy to generalize about any group of people and I am aware that Evangelicals have a reputation of being close-minded, hateful, ignorant, condescending and self-righteous. Assuming an individual person fits the generalized understanding about a group is much easier than building relationships and getting to know someone for who he or she truly is, but in my meeting with the LGBT community leader I was given the opportunity to speak for myself.

I felt loved and cared for when I was asked, “What do you mean when you say you’re an Evangelical?” I was put at ease and made more comfortable to enter into a conversation – and even friendship – with another person simply by being asked a question about my own self-understanding. It would have been quite easy to assume many things about me as and Evangelical as well as my views, beliefs, and understandings – but instead of holding onto potential presumptions, I was invited to speak for myself.

Jesus invites us into relationship with him because his love, his gospel, is relational. As a follower of Christ, I aim to do the same with others. Interfaith engagement provides me with ample opportunity to enter into relationships with people who are different from me, and to love others while existing in that difference.

Knowing that I feel loved when I’m given the space and opportunity to be known for who I am and who I understand myself to be, rather than be known by another’s presumption, motivates me to do the same for others.

That’s why I have joined the FLP ranks. I want to be part of a wider conversation that empowers Evangelicals to actively engage with this religiously diverse world in an authentic and open way, and invites all people – Christian and otherwise – to an honest conversation about religious and secular identity, and interfaith engagement. Thank you for reading FLP and I am excited to hear more about you!

Share Button

Recognizing ‘Christian Privilege’

Rabbi Seth Goren writes on how the “dominance of Christianity affects interfaith relations.”

Talking about Christian privilege is challenging, but essential. For our conversations to be authentic, honest, and justice-based, we must be aware of how each of us perceives and is perceived. It’s difficult to prevent the marginalization that Christians sometimes feel without considering how inter- and intrafaith dynamics play out more broadly for members of other faiths.

Read the full article online at Sojourners Magazine.
Thoughts?

Share Button

Speak For Yourself

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

Let’s be honest: Evangelicals get a bad rap. Sometimes rightfully so. One of the truths in life is that sometimes the most divisive voices are the loudest. It seems, these days, this is especially true of Evangelicals.

Here is another truth I’ve learned: the loudest voices aren’t always the truest. Nor are they the most representative.

As an Evangelical, I believe in living my life as a constant witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ (or at least trying to). Jesus tells us that one of the greatest commandments is to love our neighbor as ourselves. What, then, does it mean to love our neighbor?

For me, loving my neighbor means getting to know others for who they are – religious, philosophical, ideological identity and all. So much of who I am is informed by my Christian identity, so I enjoy bringing people to Church and sharing with them my understandings about Christianity and Jesus. People get to understand who I am better by knowing those aspects of me. Surely it’s the same for others and for that reason I enjoy hearing about how one’s understanding of Muhammad, Baha’u’llah, the Bhagavad Gita, Nietzsche, or Huston Smith informs their own self-understanding, way of life, and perception of the world.

One aspect of interfaith cooperation as defined by IFYC is “respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities.” That means whether you’re an Evangelical Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or simply spiritual, you have a place at the table of interfaith cooperation. That place not only empowers you to voice your own identity, but also requires you to respect the identity of others.

In the same way that I hope others will respect my Evangelical Christian identity, I try to respect the identities of others.

I had an opportunity to practice this at IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Atlanta, thanks to the Alumni Leadership Development Fund. I’m excited not only by the relationships across different religious and non-religious boundaries that I formed there, but also about meeting other Evangelicals who are excited about interfaith cooperation.

I would challenge my fellow Evangelicals to consider interfaith cooperation as an opportunity to live into Christ’s command to love others by building relationships across lines of difference and to listen before presuming anything about another’s religious or non-religious identity.

Likewise, I would also challenge my fellow allies in interfaith cooperation to be open to the presence of Evangelicals in interfaith work. Be careful not to talk about Evangelicals in sweeping statements about “their narrow-mindedness” or “ignorant proselytism.” Be mindful to allow each Evangelical to speak for his or herself, as you would want the same done for you

If we can listen to each other and allow people to speak for themselves, we take one step closer toward building common ground and working together for the common good.

This blog post was originally published on Interfaith Youth Core’s Blog on February 15, 2013

Share Button

Interfaith Dialogue and Youth Ministry

Photo by Rachael K. McNeal

Photo by Rachael K. McNeal

Growing up an Evangelical Christian I understood evangelism as a spiritual practice central and essential to my Christian identity. My experience with people of different religions was limited and in my few choice encounters with religious non-Christians, I am ashamed to say I saw them only as souls to save.

Though as a student at Flagler College I was a Religion major, minoring in youth ministry, it was not until my junior year of college that I was introduced to interfaith dialogue and to theologians such as Jacques Dupuis and Thomas Merton. I liked the idea, but wrestled with interfaith dialogue, questioning its relevance to Christian practice when the goal of such interactions was not conversion of the other.

Then I met Rabbi Mark.

Rabbi Mark Goldman, a Reform Rabbi and adjunct professor at Flagler, challenged his students to better understand their own faith by engaging in relationships with people of other faiths. To this day I admire his love of God and passion for people. His great ability to articulate his own faith and what it means for his life challenged me to better articulate my own.

Yet even in light of my relationship with Rabbi Mark, I continuously compartmentalized my two areas of study, rarely understanding one to be relevant to the other.

Then I took a class here at Princeton Theological Seminary called “Engaging Youth in Interfaith Leadership.” The class, co-led by IFYC’s Cassie Meyer and Eboo Patel and Seminary professor Kenda Dean, gave my fellow graduate students and me an opportunity to explore concepts of interfaith dialogue and how they are relevant for youth ministry.

Our class wrestled to understand how interfaith work is relevant for Christian faith and ministry. Many of us expressed that we understood interfaith work and dialogue as important but were unable to theologically articulate why. Instead we danced around the idea of interfaith dialogue with reasons having seemingly nothing to do with our Christian faith. Some in the class, including myself, had come to realize interfaith dialogue as fruitful and important, but had compartmentalized our interfaith relationships from our Christian faith and practice.

It was at this point that Eboo asked us, “What is it about Jesus that makes you want to do interfaith work?”

I then realized that for me Jesus had been the missing link between interfaith dialogue, Christian practice and youth ministry. Jesus tells us in Mark 2 that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. The kind of love to which Jesus calls me is a relational love. Christ’s love in the Gospels exemplifies love in God’s Kingdom. As Christians we are called to love as Christ loved.

The love of God accepts all people, embraces all people, and hopes for all people, including those of other faiths. Interfaith dialogue is essential to Christian practice because love and relationship is essential to Christian practice. When I made this connection, it was not difficult to make the next connection to youth ministry.

In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” Interfaith work gives young people an opportunity to be peacemakers in a very real and very practical way. Isn’t the role of Christian youth ministry to equip young people to understand their role as Children of God in the Kingdom of God?

I have come to understand that interfaith work in youth ministry enables young people to be paradigms of peace in a violent world while equipping them to be examples of God’s love and a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

This post was originally published on Interfaith Youth Core’s Blog on June 1, 2011

Share Button

Creating a Culture of Unity Through Interfaith Cooperation

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/925147

There’s no question — our country is divided. Tension hangs in the air over every conversation about the budget, gay marriage, immigration, and gun control. Of course, difference of opinion is nothing new in the U.S. This is a democracy after all. With the celebrated First Amendment as the cornerstone to our rights as Americans, we can freely shout our differing views from the rooftops — though in this day in age, shouting exists rarely on rooftops, but on the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and Twitter. It seems to me that this pervasive exposure to differing opinions, partnered with increasingly more polarized party politics, has created a culture of division in our country.

Many Americans, particularly the younger generations, are disturbed by this culture of division and desire a more united, less polarized, America. The question becomes: how do we deconstruct our culture of division and build a culture of unity? Jim Wallis, in his piece, “On God’s Side: For the Common Good,” claims that much of the division felt in this country is because so many people audaciously claim that they are on God’s side with their politics, actions, and words, and that those who don’t think, act, and vote like them, are disobeying divine order. In an effort to move the country forward to unity, Rev. Wallis suggests that instead of making claims about being on God’s side, we should start asking “are we on God’s side?”

What would it mean to be on God’s side? Rev. Wallis’s answer is to focus on the common good:

Not just in politics, but in all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, communal, and public lives. That old but always new ethic simply says we must care for more than ourselves or our own group. We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the life we share with one another. It echoes a very basic tenet of Christianity and other faiths — love your neighbor as yourself — still the most transformational ethic in history.

I agree with Rev. Wallis — focusing on the common good is a good step toward answering the question of how to be on God’s side, and solving many of our nation’s greatest points of division. In a country as diverse as ours, however, it can be challenging to know what the common good actually is. As individual participants in society, we all come to the table with different ideological structures for framing our understanding of what is commonly good. Those structures are often built around religion, philosophy, and our beliefs and understandings about existence, mortality, and the cosmos. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that we live in, arguably, the most religiously diverse nation of all time.
Yes, Jesus has called me to love my neighbor as myself, but what does that really mean when my neighbor is Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, secular humanist, or Hindu?

Religion is often blamed for the world’s greatest conflicts, and rightfully so. One doesn’t have to look far to see conflict or violence that is linked to religious motivations or sentiments in some way (think the tragedy at the Boston Marathon or the Sikh man that was murdered shortly after 9/11 because he was wearing a turban). In a country that becomes more religiously diverse every day, it is easy to allow conflict to arise between different religious and non-religious groups. It is true, difference in religious and philosophical ideology can be a cause of great division. But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be that way?

I believe that amidst all of our nation’s diversity, we must be able to find, or create, common ground among us in order to focus on the common good. This is exactly what the American interfaith movement aims to do. According to the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a non-profit organization whose mission is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, the interfaith movement seeks to build religious pluralism in the U.S. IFYC understands religious pluralism to be respect for others’ religious and non-religious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good.

Religious pluralism, in its most ideal form, not only paves the way to common ground but also creates action for the common good through personal relationships. Pluralism is necessarily relational: it only manifests itself in the give and take of relationships between people of different religious and non-religious identities.

Interfaith cooperation is the path to religious pluralism and a path toward ending the hostile ideological environment in which our country finds itself. It can be scary or intimidating for people of different religions to meet each other half way and to have a conversation. IFYC suggests creating interfaith service projects where Atheists, Christians, and Muslims can work alongside each other in the context of a service project that benefits their mutual communities (a soup kitchen, for example). The service becomes the common ground on which personal relationships across difference are built. In the safety of their common ground, they can then begin to have dialogue and discover each other’s true selves; thus paving the way to developing mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds and respect for others’ religious and non-religious identities, backgrounds, and beliefs.

Don’t be fooled. You don’t have to leave your own unique religious (or non-religious) identity at the door to engage in interfaith cooperation. In fact, it requires you to be authentically yourself, religious identity and all. You can fully and genuinely respect another’s identity while simultaneously holding your own differing religious identity. I, an evangelical Christian, can appreciate, and even be inspired, by the dedication of my Muslim neighbor to pray five times a day, while at the same time wanting them to know Jesus. What interfaith cooperation does require is to listen openly, check presumption at the door, and suspend pointing fingers and placing blame on your interfaith cohorts for the ills of the world.

Interfaith cooperation is evolving all the time. With the daily growth of religious diversity in the country, and the growing awareness around the interfaith movement, new voices are being added every day to the conversation about religious pluralism, interfaith cooperation, and their roles in creating common action for the common good. In light of this evolution, what remains consistent and clear is that having personal relationships across religious difference creates religious literacy and interpersonal understanding; such understanding fosters compassion while cultivating a more peaceful and united society. These relationships become our common ground.

I challenge you to help create common ground by building relationships across religious and ideological difference, and to help lay the foundation on which we can build our understanding of the common good and begin to build a stronger more united America.

“This blog post is part of The Huffington Post’s ‘Common Good’ series and Sojourners’ Common Good Forum, inspired by Jim Wallis’ latest book, “On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.” Click here to read the rest of the blog posts in the series.”

Share Button