Category Archives: Service

6 Chaplains Walk Into a Hospital…

What do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks?

I haven’t been able to come up with a punchy one-line answer yet—but let me know if you can think of any.  This has been my summer so far. In early June, six of us from Jewish and Christian seminaries around New York City embarked on our first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)—a requirement for most clergy-in-training that involves offering pastoral care to people in need, in a clinical setting. Our hospital ID badges say “Chaplain Intern,” but what it means to be a chaplain—as I have learned over and over again—is ambiguous, and often has more to do with what the person we happen to be serving wants (or needs) us to be, than what we believe we are.

When someone asks us about our faith traditions—even though we are all deeply connected to specific traditions—we are instructed to say something along these lines: I am an interfaith chaplain and I’m here to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of patients in the hospital, no matter what their faith or philosophical tradition may be. Still,patients often project their own faiths onto us—there was the Episcopalian chaplain who has been repeatedly called Rabbi, the Jewish chaplain who was thanked for her work and her inspiring faith in Jesus; I have had multiple patients assume I am Catholic. For the most part, we don’t correct these assumptions, not because we don’t care, but because our job in the hospital is not to share our identities with others, but to listen, to pray, and to walk with those who are suffering. Why should a patient who is just coming out of a four-week coma after a stroke care if I’m an Episcopalian, or even a Christian for that matter? Much more important is that the patient can express her feelings and know that God is with her and is listening to her prayers.

That’s not to say that it has been easy to “set aside” our faith traditions. There are times that I have wanted to talk about Jesus or quote New Testament scripture and have had to hold back. But being able to talk about Jesus isn’t what makes me a Christian. I am a Christian because my beliefs and my relationship to Jesus inform the way I live my life and interact with others. Even if I don’t tell a patient that I am Christian, my Christian beliefs are what “get me in the door,” so to speak. My personal faith is the ground I stand on when I meet with patients. It is what helps me to understand the suffering I witness; it is what allows me to love each patient I encounter, regardless of our differences; it is what challenges me to keep coming back. In that way, I haven’t had to set aside my faith at all.

Throughout our first four weeks, each of us has been challenged to define our own theologies of pastoral care, of suffering, and of grief. Many of us have been with family members at the time of a loved one’s death; we have listened to patients who are experiencing excruciating pain, who have been diagnosed with incurable diseases, who feel hopeless about the possibility of healing—and we have to figure out how we can find the tools within our personal faith traditions to be a presence of God’s love to those we encounter. So, what do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks? You probably have to be there for yourself to know for sure—and even then, it’s hard to articulate. But I can say that, in my own experience, not being able to talk directly about my faith has forced me to figure out how to live my faith in a way that speaks louder than words. I can’t say that I always do it well, but I am committed to trying as hard as I can. Perhaps what you get is a group of people who can’t hide behind their intellects and religious platitudes—perhaps you get raw, real religion.

Share Button

Season after Epiphany, an Interfaith Meditation

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Matthew 2:12 (NRSV)

I know not all Protestant traditions follow a liturgical calendar, but for those of us that do, we are currently in the aptly named Season after Epiphany.

Epiphany was celebrated by most Protestants on January 6th.  It is the time when we celebrate when God made flesh in Jesus Christ was visited by three wise people.  Before arriving to the birth place, the three wise ones visited Herod, Roman-appointed puppet governor of Judea.  To make a long story short, Herod was threatened by the small baby Jesus because people were referring to the child as the King of the Jews.  Herod killed many children in Judea in an effort to protect his power and the wise people decided to not revisit Herod, instead taking “another road.”

I think this is inherently a call from the Bible to be engaged in interfaith cooperation against the injustices of the world.  The wise men, sometimes referred to as astrologers, were from lands abroad.  Church tradition notes that they may have been from three different continents.  They were most-likely not Jewish.  It’s hard to say what tradition they practiced or why they came to the baby Jesus or why they listened to the dream that warned them about Herod.  Despite all these uncertainties, I have been dwelling continually on what that other road was like.

Sure, there are the geographical questions, but what about the life questions?  As someone who is both a religious leader and an interfaith leader, I feel like my ministry is filled with opportunities to take other roads.  Interfaith cooperation is not about doing the same old thing, it is doing an entirely new thing.  We encounter injustice and suffering in many different ways in the world in which we live.  Are there other roads that we can join people who might not think the same way we do, but surely are capable of loving in the same way?

My hope and prayer is that this post serves as a motivation to begin thinking outside the box.  Encourage your own faith community to reach out to other faith communities or non-religious groups to get involved in a larger issue.  I am making it a part of my ministry to intentionally work with other faith groups for service projects.  Sometimes it seems difficult to find the time to do such things, but when we think of it as taking another road it shifts our mode of thought.  Interfaith cooperation is not a simple action, but an entire paradigm shift in how we think about and engage in the world around us.  Let us reap the wisdom from these wise ones of ancient times and not be afraid to take another road to see what can be.

Share Button

Quick Links: Reimagining Christmas

Check out this Sojourners’ article by Sheldon Good on Advent Conspiracy and how Christians can “reimagine” the consumer culture that overwhelms Christmas.

Share Button

Born Again Christian + Interfaith Activist = Not Mutually Exclusive

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.

Share Button

When Hunger Action is Interfaith Collaboration

A friend once told me that religious institutions outnumber hospitals one thousand to one in some developing countries. While I don’t know where I’d begin to find verification of this statement, I don’t have a hard time believing it. And as an MD/PhD student interested in global health, it has me thinking.

Religious institutions can bring structure, leadership, and accountability to people and communities. They can also have a tremendous influence on congregants or followers. For a negative example, consider the Texas megachurch which appears to be at the center of a recent measles outbreak, and the role of the congregation’s culture may have played in discouraging immunization. One might imagine the potential impact on health if the cultures promoted by religious institutions worldwide encouraged healthy lifestyles or even provided the infrastructure for prevention, screening, diagnosis or treatment of certain diseases.

As activists on my campus turn to emphasize a related issue this month – food insecurity – the same thought experiment applies. September has been deemed Hunger Action Month by Feeding America in order to promote awareness and action around hunger issues in the United States, and it has me thinking about how religious institutions have been engaging this problem in my own community.

For example, Sola Gratia Farm is a community-supported agriculture initiative of the St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana, IL which donates at least ten percent of its crops to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and promotes healthy lifestyles through community programs. Or take for example the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign, IL, which is opening a food pantry this fall to address largely overlooked food insecurity among college students. Or the Wesley Evening Food Pantry, operating out of the Wesley United Methodist Church and Foundation on my campus, which engages people from all walks of life, including the Unitarian Universalist Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to serve more than 1,000 individuals who are struggling to make ends meet at the end of each month when SNAP benefits are running low.

Perhaps the most compelling are these examples of the way that religious institutions have turned to interfaith collaboration to address food insecurity in our community. The First Mennonite Church and Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, situated on opposite sides of one of Urbana’s busiest streets, took advantage of their proximity to collaborate on a community garden, donating produce to a local women’s shelter. Meanwhile, student organizations like the Muslim Students Association, Jain Students Association, Dharma (a Hindu students organization), Interfaith in Action, and others across campus have collaborated to hold fundraising fast-a-thons or to package food to send to local food banks and pantries.

I won’t pretend that I know the solution to hunger in any context. But I do believe that religious institutions and interfaith collaborations in Champaign-Urbana are demonstrating an approach worth considering. And as a Christian, I view this less as an opportunity and more as a responsibility. Yet I fear that there are still too many churches sitting on the sidelines and watching.

What if religious institutions like the First Mennonite Church or the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center were the norm instead of the exception? What if hunger action was something that religious communities saw as a necessary part of their role in the broader community? What if we all expected our institutions to invest in efforts with both religious and non-religious collaborators? What if all Jesus followers fully embraced the Christian call to feed the hungry and were willing to do it alongside people of other traditions?

I believe religious institutions possess the capacity to make a difference in our society, and that interfaith collaborations can motivate fundamental change. I also believe we can all agree that no one should go hungry. So what will you do this month to help realize this potential we collectively bear?

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/foodbankcenc/ available under Creative Commons.
Share Button

Mission Trip Potential

This summer, I went on two mission trips with my church youth group through Sierra Service Project.  SSP was founded in 1975 by a group of United Methodists (now it is more ecumenical) who wanted to provide young people with the opportunity to serve with others in rural and urban communities.  Last week, we slept on a gym floor in Chiloquin, Oregon, where we served members of the Klamath Tribes (a few weeks ago, we were in Susanville, CA serving the Susanville Indian Rancheria).  All of the youth are split up from the church groups they came with and put into work teams.  My team helped stack firewood and painted a shed for an elderly woman with painful arthritis.  The work teams labored from 9am to 4pm everyday, shared a simple PB&J lunch at the worksite alongside a midday devotional, came back to shower, and then participated in evening programs, which included cultural programming from a representative of the Klamath Tribes.  Oh, and lest I forget that the youth have their cell phones taken away on Day 1.

We had a wonderful time learning from our homeowners, about God, and more about each other, but there was one thing that really amazed me about the SSP experience: the youth bonded very quickly.  There was something magical about a gym floor being the great equalizer.  On the first night, the staff encouraged everyone to take off their “cool jackets” and put on their “social sweaters” instead.  There was programming that talked about dismantling stereotypes.  The theme of the week was “Just Love, Just Serve,” which connoted the idea of a simple (of course, we know its not that simple!) love of our neighbors and also love and service that enacts justice for all in our world.  The youth participants really took this to heart and a very welcoming environment was developed quickly.  After six days, there were tears in many youth and adult eyes, knowing that this glimpse of God’s love in human community was over until next summer.

Since SSP is a Christian organization, many of the themes had a scriptural basis.  Each workgroup developed a covenant based on 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind…”).  We had discussion and an art project based on Micah 6:8.  On a spiritual walk, we interpreted the Lord’s Prayer and discerned what God might be trying to tell us directly.  The last night ended with a Love Feast, an old Methodist ritual (we are known for our potlucks, after all!), where we served each other in community a sweet treat (vanilla wafers and peanut butter, in this case) to show how sweet God’s grace is in our lives.  Overall, it was a well-blended mix of faith, love, and service with enough take-aways to continue similar work in our local church settings.

For myself, I know that United Methodist camping ministry has been a huge part of my faith formation.  It is where I was affirmed most and where an inkling of my own call to ministry began.  There is just something about getting away from one’s quotidian life and taking an adventure with little expectations and seeing what you can discover about God and yourself.  For teenagers and young adults, these experiences are priceless.

Being an interfaith leader and a contributor for this blog, my SSP experience got my intellectual and dreaming wheels turning.  What would be the benefit of weeklong (or longer) camping/service trips with an interfaith focus?  Would there be a benefit?  I think there would be immense benefit, but such a program would have to be very tactful and intentional.  Much like faith formation in any tradition, forming a young person for leadership in a religiously diverse world is not to be done halfheartedly.  Needless to say, I think organizations like Sierra Service Project have a really good model from which an interfaith focus could begin.

Are there any thoughts from other interfaith leaders out there?

Share Button

When doing the Christian thing isn’t the right thing

707084_12414975I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

 

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campustown, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy which gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

 

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

There is a certain logic among many Christians which says that it is necessary to proselytize on account of our tradition’s teaching that our truth is exclusive. Because our exclusive truth teaches us that the consequence is damnation for those who do not subscribe, we feel we must convince others of our truth. At all costs. At any length. Whatever it takes. To not do so, we reason, would be unloving.

I happen to agree – to a certain extent – with this logic. But I also happen to disagree with where this logic has led many Christians: to the notion that we must be aggressive, abrasive, disrespectful and judgmental.

I believe that the problem evangelicalism faces today is that we have forgotten the very example that we claim to follow. The example of a servant, preacher, and prophet who was a friend of those that religious leaders considered sinners and outcasts. In fact, Jesus seemed to value relationships over regulations and rituals, whether that relationship was with someone of a different tradition, someone society hated, or someone religious leaders considered immoral.

What we Christians fail to see is that the most important way to relate to a person who believes differently is not to convince them of how they are wrong, which we have tried with every method available—approaches which ironically seem to make our message even less convincing. What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader.

I credit two people with teaching me how to communicate the Gospel. One of them is a Christian living in the slums of Philadelphia, and the other is a Muslim.

So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

 

This piece originally appeared at Sojourners.

Image credit.

Share Button

Listen to Barbara Brown Taylor on the Good Samaritan

If you’re looking for a mid-week sermon fix, check out this powerful message delivered by Barbara Brown Taylor at Riverside Church in New York City last Sunday.

Here’s a preview:  “I became a Christian in my twenties and I was always told to get my beliefs in order before I did things…but based on the story of the Good Samaritan, I wonder if things don’t work the other way around.  Maybe our lives are designed to upset our beliefs, not to reinforce them.”  Click on the link to hear the whole sermon: “The Right Answer”

Share Button