Category Archives: Interfaith Movement

Hearing Stories and Telling Stories: How Polarization Erases Personhood

Unsure of the public’s reaction in the days immediately following 9/11, Dr. Saleh Sbanaty and his family refused to go outside for fear of violence, heckling, or worse. One day, however, necessity got the better of them and they traveled to the grocery store to pick up a few things. While walking the aisles toward the cash registers,  Dr. Sbanaty felt a hand on his shoulder.

He froze.

He turned around to see a woman he had never seen before. She looked him in the eyes.

Though for a moment time seemed to slow to a halt, Dr. Sbanaty’s pulse quickened. Would she yell? Would she spit? Dr. Sbanaty did not know.

“You are welcome in this community,” she said.

Instead of insults and hate, she spoke words of encouragement and acceptance, even though she knew nothing of the man before her– a professor of engineering at Middle Tennessee State University and a devout Muslim. She was able to see him as a person, not a talking point.

Picture can be found at [http://www.islamophobiatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Islamic_Center_Murfreesboro2.jpg].

During FLP’s hiatus, we’ve seen religiously-motivated violence, political unrest, anti-American protests, massacres, shootings, the bizarre national argument over same-sex marriage fought over a fast-food chicken sandwich, debates over foreign and domestic policy, bombings, landmark Supreme Court decisions and more– and all the while we argue and denigrate one another as we disagree. Much of it has left me confused and disappointed; everything seems so broken, so irreparable.

This feeling of disappointment at humanity’s ability to talk about tough issues hits home for me. Many of you will have heard of the controversy that began some time ago surrounding the construction and opening of the mosque and Islamic community center in Murfressboro, TN. I’ve even written about it a couple of times on Faith Line Protestants.

During my orientation at Sewanee last August, we heard from Dr. Saleh M. Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro who has advocated for the building of the mosque and spoken on its behalf to the media on numerous occasions. The story at the beginning of this post comes (albeit slightly paraphrased) from the talk he gave that day a couple of months ago.

His daughter, Lema, a strong, proud, hijab-wearing young woman, joined him at our orientation and delivered the powerful story of her experience in the Murfreesboro community as both a student at the university and as a worker at a local pharmacy. She too has spoken publicly on behalf of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, and has even appeared on CNN and other prominent news outlets to share her story and fight common misconceptions that follow Muslims in this country.

It brought tears to my eyes to hear how she had been treated– how customers had refused her service at the pharmacy, and how people stared and jeered and taunted. The Sbanatys aren’t strangers to the Murfreesboro community; indeed, Dr. Sbanaty has lived in Middle Tennessee for around a quarter of a century, and the area is the only home his children have ever known. Lema spoke with as much of a drawl as any good country girl I know, seeming just as at home in her cowboy boots and fashionable jeans as she did in her head scarf. Yet she and her fellow Muslims have found themselves treated in recent years as outsiders rather than neighbors.

In addition to his identity as a Muslim and a university professor, Dr. Sbanaty is also from Syria, having obtained his undergraduate education at Damascus University. You could see the pain in his eyes when he talked about the current struggle plaguing his home country. I felt ashamed that here in America we couldn’t offer him something more than just less persecution, less danger, than what he would now face in his home country.

Despite their recent struggle with parts of the community and country-at-large, Lema and her father had positive stories to tell in addition to their sad ones– stories of the mountains of support they have seen from local churches and other groups that have come in to advocate on their behalf.

Yet this support seemed betrayed when the construction of the mosque hit so many snags. Arson, vandalism, and legal obstructionism have all taken their toll on the Muslim community in Murfreesboro, despite the opening of the mosque last summer. It makes me think: with all the arguing, name-calling, and ill-informed discussion, what do we lose in the background? What stories go untold, unheard? Surely something gets lost among our soundbites and rapid-fire commentaries.

Something Dr. Sbanaty said about the situation in Syria struck me rather deeply. He urged us to consider that, despite the simplistic narratives fed to us in the drone of endless news cycles, the actual environment in many of these countries that produces such violence comes not simply from the Muslim faith, but from the years of oppression, mis-management of funds, militarism, and complex socio-political and even tribal contexts that produce what we have seen in everything from the Arab Spring to the anti-American sentiment prevalent in some of the region. (Our own military intervention in these countries might also have something to do with it, I’d wager.)

What gets lost among the rubble of our terrible discussions, I think, is personhood. Polarization erases personhood. Whether it be in Murfreesboro, TN or Damascus, Syria– polarization pushes stories and individual experience out of the way for an easy stereotype or an easier cliche. What this presupposes about human dignity should give us pause.

As a Christian, I believe in the inherent worth of all God’s children.Therefore I also believe in the inherent worth of all these children’s stories, their lives. Just as Frank Fredericks’ wonderful post earlier this week about the parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us, I too want to challenge us to think: what goes unnoticed when we are unwilling to listen? What stories go untold?

Interfaith work can be a way of telling those stories. Tell them. Hear them. Share them.

Amen.

 

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Eats Well with Others

What does eating have to do with evangelism? If you grew up going to church, then you likely grew up attending church potlucks (or pitch-ins, or covered dishes—or, whatever they were called in your hometown).  Christian churches everywhere host meals on special occasions or following worship in the spirit of fellowship.  This practice is rooted in one of the basic tenets of our faith—that when we break bread together we are celebrating the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who offered us his flesh and blood (bread and cup) as a sign of his covenant with humanity. In order to follow Christ, we Christians eat together.

Long before Jell-O salad and deviled eggs, Christian communities came together to share the Lord’s Supper. But early Christians didn’t always break bread in the spirit Jesus showed.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul admonishes the followers of Christ in Corinth for eating in an unfaithful way: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”

In order to observe the Lord’s Supper, Paul points out that we cannot merely gather together; we have to gather in a spirit of hospitality and humility. No one can go hungry or thirsty at the Lord’s Supper. Paul goes on to say: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” My New Testament professor, Dr. Brigette Kahl, says that the very definition of what it means to be Christian is to be a “co-eater”. To be a Christian is to eat with others; to wait for others; to sacrifice our own comfort for the comfort of others; to be one who sets a wide table at which everyone is welcome.  For Paul, this is no small command. Those who eat in an “unworthy manner” will face judgment and risk condemnation.

In our religiously diverse world, Christians are called to eat and fellowship with those of all faith traditions and backgrounds. We are called to extend the Lord’s Table beyond the church walls in order to make the example and teachings of Jesus a reality in our world. Interfaith cooperation is about being with others; in Christian terms, it is about eating with others. Evangelicals and all Christians embody the life and sacrifice of Jesus when we seek communion with all of the “others” around us, despite our differences.

 

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Living the Gospel through Interfaith Cooperation

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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!

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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?

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What My Southern Baptist Past Says About My Episcopal Present

cameron_cropI’ll confess: If I listed my relationship with Evangelicalism on my Facebook page, it would probably read “It’s Complicated.”

I grew up a Southern Baptist just outside Nashville, TN—the de facto headquarters for evangelical culture. In addition to being the home of country music, Nashville also lays claim to the Christian music industry, as well as other forms of Christian media such as Christian publishing houses Thomas Nelson, Abingdon Press, and LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Both the Southern Baptist Convention and most of the administrative offices of the United Methodist Church call Nashville home, as do the National Association of Free Will Baptists. The Gideons International—those guys who put Bibles in every hotel room—is also headquartered there. All this has earned it the nicknames “the Protestant Vatican” and the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s not surprising, then, that I grew up enmeshed in the evangelical Christian subculture. I played in a band, and we toured around various churches leading “worship nights,” interspersing our own material in between the Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United covers. I’ve even worked at the Dove Awards—the contemporary Christian music version of the Grammys— multiple times and have met a good many artists in the Christian music industry.

If anyone was (by appearances, at least) a thoroughgoing evangelical, I was. Yet from a young age I wasn’t sure I completely owned the identity I had spent so much time embodying.

Just as college came knocking, I felt a call to ordained ministry. Naturally I assumed that this call included a trip to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lousiville, KY before heading into a life as an aspiring megachurch pastor—a prospect I did not find altogether inspiring. Disenchanted with the Southern Baptist church and the evangelical subculture itself, I stepped back from a possible vocation as a minister and instead focused my energies on my writing and my studies.

I then began to wander. I devoured as much as I could about other denominations and even other religious traditions. At the University of Illinois I floated from church to church, but nowhere really felt like home. I became involved in interfaith work and encountered for the first time a cross-section of the world’s diverse religious traditions.

It was in the midst of this tumultuous time in my life that I fell in love with the liturgy (and I’ll admit even some of the theology) of the Roman Catholic Church. But this was during the thick of the sex abuse scandals, and in addition to some other misgivings regarding Roman Catholic belief I could not so easily jettison my Protestant convictions.

The Episcopal Church filled this void for me, providing the richness of the liturgy with theology of the Reformation. It seemed like a “big tent” where evangelicals (such as the newly-consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby) could exist alongside progressives and where “high church” worship styles could intermingle with guitars and pianos. Though still informed and influenced by my evangelical roots, my faith has also been strengthened and enriched by the incorporation of Anglo-Catholic theology and practice propagated by the 19th century Oxford Movement.

This interesting combination is a part of my story—my own journey and perspective—that I hope to bring to the pages of FLP.

Perhaps because of my own meandering journey I possess a passion for building bridges of understanding between different communities, and jumped at the chance to found FLP with Greg back in 2010 to encourage the evangelical community to participate in interfaith engagement. How we share the gospel with others, how we live out the gospel in our lives—these are central to part of the Christian faith, whatever your stripe. I’m excited about FLP’s re-launch and the new conversations we hope to foster!

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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

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An Evangelical’s Sacred Ground

In summer 2010, a few blocks from Ground Zero, my values were under attack too.

I can still see the image vividly: a white poster board decorated with red and blue markers, as if to suggest its message was patriotic:“All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”Eboo Patel’s new book, Sacred Ground, revisits the scene of Cordoba House to frame a discussion on pluralism and interfaith leadership in America. Eboo offers apt perspective as an American Muslim and director of Interfaith Youth Core, but the discourse that took place around Park Place that summer is not only important for Muslims and interfaith activists.I am an Evangelical Christian, and there is something personal for me at stake in the midst of bigotry that deals precisely with my religious identity. I deliberated over that identity for a time but realized that “evangelical” best describes my understanding of what it means to respond to the Christian gospel and emulate the example of Christ.Yet some of the loudest voices of intolerance call themselves Evangelicals too. Earlier this month, Pat Robertson blamed atheists for the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek. This spring Bryan Fischer publicly attacked the Romney campaign for hiring a gay man. After 9/11, Jerry Fallwell pointed his finger wildly at a wide variety of people who didn’t believe the same things he did.


Yet they call themselves Evangelical Christians.In Sacred Ground, Eboo notes the influence of the evangelical masses in American politics, suggesting that “when Evangelicals change, America changes.” And in many ways he’s right – he cites the Evangelical-led anti-Catholic movement of the 1960 election and draws parallels to present-day islamophobia, which in many ways is led by Evangelical figures.But Evangelicals aren’t a hopeless bunch. That’s why, on the occasions I’ve talked to Christians about interfaith cooperation, I often start with a picture of that man standing on Park Place in lower Manhattan, holding the handwritten sign in blue and red marker.And I ask my fellow Evangelicals: “Is this what you believe?”There is a simple, profound reason why it’s not what I believe. It’s because of relationships. It’s because of working with Muslims in my community to do things like feed the hungry and provide healthcare to the uninsured. And there’s precedence for this, as Eboo notes: relationships between Evangelicals and Catholics explain the shift that has changed attitudes about Catholicism since the 1960’s. But even deeper and more historic than 1960’s America is the example of Jesus Christ: the ethic of loving your neighbor.

I’m thankful for the Evangelical leaders who are setting interfaith relationships as a priority for the Evangelical tradition, from Gabe Lyons, who has created dialogue with the Imam behind Park51, to Jim Wallis and the staff at Sojourners. Not to mention Skye JethaniNicholas PriceBob Roberts and many others who are leading the change.

My prayer is that Evangelical Christianity can shed the rhetoric of criticism and judgment and regain a reputation as a tradition centered on relationships, first our relationship with God, then relationships with neighbors of all traditions. This is why, for Evangelicals, all ground is sacred ground: we’re called always and everywhere to a tradition of relationships that is as old as the Evangelical tradition itself.

This piece was originally posted on the Interfaith Youth Core’s blog.

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Creating Leaders in a Religiously Plural World

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.

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