From Gordon College: Loving Our Religious Neighbors

Faith Line Protestants is excited to feature a new voice in our discussion on Christians in the interfaith movement. Kyleen Burke is a senior Political Science/Philosophy major at Gordon College in Massachusetts. She has been involved in the leadership of a new interfaith club at Gordon, which she hopes will become a permanent part of the college ethos.

Over the course of my four years at Gordon I have devised a simple and succinct way to describe my school: It’s a “small, Christian, liberal arts college just north of Boston”. This is enough to pacify most, and is apt outline of what makes my college unique. I decided to go to Gordon the night before the decision deadline, thinking “if I’m going to call myself a Christian for the rest of my life, I should probably learn about Christianity”. As it turned out, Gordon was an excellent place for this sort of mission. Educating well-versed Christians is the driving philosophy of Gordon, and faith is integrated into every aspect of our learning. However, the Christian environment does come with a trade-off. While it is conducive to good, deep conversations about big questions, it is hard to consider the perspective of other faiths. We do not have Muslim, Jewish, or Secular Humanist peers to discuss issues with. It is also hard to learn about other religions and philosophical traditions when they are not represented on campus. Thankfully, Gordon has recently confronted this issue with a concerted effort connect our campus to the rich diversity of religious groups in the Boston area. Our hope is to pioneer a new way for Christian colleges to retain their unique community, without being closed-off to relationships with our religious neighbors.

Our project at Gordon began with the prodding of Josh Daneshforooz, an Evangelical Christian who had recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School. Having been raised in a multi-faith household, Josh was particularly passionate about connecting Christian and Muslim communities. He wrote a book called “Loving Our Religious Neighbors”, as a manual for Churches that want to connect with the Muslims in their area. The book outlines a fourteen-week program, in which Christian groups reflect on the Biblical mandates to love our neighbor, before engaging with their Muslim partners in community service and dialogue. In the summer of 2010, before the book had been published, Josh asked us if we could pilot the program at Gordon.

The opportunity to start a Loving Our Religious Neighbors campaign seemed like the perfect way to introduce interfaith engagement to our Evangelical campus. Like many students at Gordon, I had always been interested in learning about other religions, but hadn’t found a method that fit clearly within the school’s paradigm. So, a small group of us started meeting weekly, reading chapters from Loving Our Religious Neighbors and talking about religion and belief in general. We partnered with the Muslim Students Association at MIT to host a joint service project at a local NGO, and a Church/Mosque visit. By the end of our first semester we had facilitated exciting conversations and formed new friendships with peers we would not have met otherwise.

This year, the Loving Our Religious Neighbors project at Gordon has grown in numbers and support. More students are interested in learning about other faiths and engaging in our area. Faculty and administration have also encouraged our project and endorsed the effort to find a way to join the interfaith movement as Evangelicals. We continue to meet weekly for discussions about religion and faith. We also host a lecture series of visiting scholars who present on their belief, including Nuri Friedlander from the Harvard Islamic Society and Chris Stedman from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. The most affecting aspect of our project, however, continues to be the partnership with our peers (which are the wonderful students at the Harvard Interfaith Council this year). By working with the HIC on service projects and special events, we are given opportunities that few Evangelical college students encounter. We are able to meet thoughtful and devout students our own age and develop relationships that broaden and challenge our comfortable lines of thinking. It is this type of growth that is necessary for the holistic education places like Gordon seek to provide. Without learning from, and engaging with, our religious neighbors, we neglect an important aspect how we might develop as students and as Evangelical Christians.

Strengthening faith through interfaith

Faith Line Protestants is excited to feature a new voice in our discussion on Christians in the interfaith movement. Anne Marie Roderick is a graduate of Earlham College where she was an active member of Earlham Christian Fellowship. She is also an alum of the Interfaith Youth Core’s Fellows Alliance and now serves as an editorial assistant with Sojourners Magazine in Washington, D.C.

 

Jim Wallis is famous for saying that Christian faith should be personal, but never private.  In other words, the personal relationship we have with God—the one we hold in our hearts—should reflect itself in the world as a public testament of our commitment to Christ.

When I began college in 2007, I was in the middle of a process of returning to faith.  I had recently begun to read the Bible and pray regularly on my own and for the first time in a long time I felt that I had a personal relationship with God.  As the presence of God grew within me I couldn’t help but let that spirit spill out into the world.  I committed to attending church each week as I had done with my family when I was younger; I joined the Christian fellowship group at my school; I volunteered to help out at various campus ministry events; and I began to reflect on how to bring the spirit of Christ into my relationships with friends and family, and into my classwork.

I took a course during my second semester called Contemporary Religious Movements and Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith was on the syllabus.  As I read this inspiring story of a young Muslim man finding his faith again I felt as though I was reading my own story.  I too was trying to figure out how I fit into my religious tradition.  Like Eboo Patel, I cared about how the stories of my faith were being told in media around the world.  And I wanted to build peace and understanding across difference.   I had grown up in New York City in a religiously diverse community and I had close friends who were Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and atheists; yet, as a child and teenager I had done little to stop it when I watched those friends get teased and harassed for their religious heritage.  Now, as a Christian, I wanted to do better than that.  I wanted to be better than that.

In the Gospels, we read about a Jesus who constantly breaks social barriers in order to model for us a radical life of love, compassion, and forgiveness.  How can we, as Christians, reflect that mission in our lives today?  I got involved with interfaith work through the Interfaith Youth Core and on my campus and I found that I became a stronger, more faithful Christian because of it.  What’s a better place to model the Christian spirit than in a diverse setting with people of other faith backgrounds?  Christians involved in interfaith work become representatives of Christian faith—not for doctrine or theology, but for the spirit of love, grace and reconciliation to which Christ calls us.  As I listened to the stories of those around me answers to the deep questions I had about my own faith became clearer. As I built and strengthened relationships with people of other religious traditions, my relationship to God became stronger.  While my faith initially inspired me to do interfaith work, I continue to be involved in these efforts because interfaith work enhances my faith and my commitment to serving the mission of Jesus.

What if Jeremy Lin wasn’t a Christian?

Photo by nikk_la

 

I can’t quite tell if Linsanity is dying down yet, but one way or another, I’ve wanted to ask a question ever since the NBA’s latest star surfaced: What if Jeremy Lin wasn’t a Christian?

Would he still be the no-name basketball player who was waived from two teams before stepping into a moment of opportunity and leading the team on a seven-game winning streak, producing the kind of stats and hype that landed him the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row? Would he still be the undrafted 2010 rookie who was repeatedly sent to the NBA Development League during his first season? Would we still emphasize that he’s the first Harvard graduate in the NBA since 1954? Would he still be the first Chinese- or Taiwanese-American ever to play in the NBA? Would we be talking about his faith in the same way?

Continue reading at The Huffington Post.

Unconvential alliances

I had to take a quick moment to promote this article from my friend Chris Stedman on the Relevant Magazine blog: Why This Atheist Still Needs His Former Pastor.

Quoting Chris, this is what really hits home for me:

…I cannot help but wonder what the world would look like if we were more willing to forge unconventional alliances. What would happen if we were more radical about whom we saw as our collaborators? What would happen if we took the risk of reaching out to the unfamiliar? If atheists and Christians started seeing one another as necessary partners in making the world a better place, what might we come to understand about each other? What might we come to better understand about ourselves? What might we accomplish together?

This is important because of the two simple facts that God calls Christians to serve those in need and that we can accomplish more by working together. But since this blog almost invariably comes back to this idea of evangelism, I’d like to add that the unconventional alliances to which Chris refers are, in my opinion, the best way to show the world the compassion of Jesus and to communicate the full, compelling truth of the gospel. And even though Chris and I disagree about whether that gospel is indeed truth, we can agree about the fact that we’re all better off as collaborators in making the world a better place than we are as collaborators in the historic, futile argument about who is right.

So check out Chris’ article and dwell on this today: what if we made these unconventional alliances… conventional?

A more compelling truth

I wanted to share a quick thought from worship this morning that effectively reiterates the number one lesson I’ve learned while writing this blog during the last year.

Today’s discussion wrapped up a multi-week series on Ephesians with verses 6:10-20 which discusses the “Armor of God.” In his commentary on verse 15:

and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace

the speaker landed on a point that I will paraphrase below:

When I present the gospel, people don’t disagree with me because it’s wrong. They disagree with me because I haven’t presented a more compelling truth.

I think that this idea follows logically, and necessarily, from believing the authority of the Bible as truth. As a Christian, I believe that I must be ready to communicate that truth. My observation, however, is that the majority of our efforts to present that truth, including many of the ways I learned to “do evangelism” growing up, fall painfully short of presenting the full truth – and often with negative consequences. Take the Harold Camping approach, for example, or the culture warriors or the evangelizers that Gabe Lyons discusses.

Based on my experience and my own spiritual journey, I contend that I have never found a better opportunity to present the whole compelling truth of the gospel than in the context of relationships facilitated by interfaith dialogue. Why? Because the interfaith movement is built on three basic principles: service, storytelling and relationships. Activities which, for a Christian, are exactly in stride with the ministry of Christ.

From Ghana to West Virginia: Lessons about the Kingdom

I wrote this piece during a recent visit to Cape Coast, Ghana as part of an observational experience with the Global Health Initiative at the University of Illinois.

It’s a 10 hour flight between Washington D.C. and Accra, Ghana, giving me ample time to notice the group of twenty on the plane in front of me wearing matching t-shirts. The group displayed alternating colors of light blue and lime green and a logo that read “Kingdom Expansion” across their left breast.

They were from somewhere in West Virginia. And they got me thinking.

My first reaction was cynical. I was about to embark on an academic journey relevant to my graduate research, medical training, and interest in global health. As such, I initially felt some sort of self-righteous superiority, thinking back to my own “matching t-shirt” experience (ours were bright blue) —a “Go & Serve” mission trip to Jamaica when I was a freshman in high school—and feeling as though the current context of my travel was more sophisticated this time around.

To be honest, I assumed this “Kingdom Expansion” group was out to convert the people of Ghana to Christianity. And though that’s not something I believe to be a bad thing, the way in which I imagined them implementing their evangelism strategy left me feeling a combination of embarrassment and anxiety.

Keep in mind: this is all going on in my head. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions.

So what was this group of brightly-clothed Christians who, for some reason, I didn’t trust to communicate the gospel effectively and respectfully, really out do to? Many of them were rough, middle-aged guys who had donned work boots and jeans with their uniform t-shirts for the 10 hours of backache-producing absence of legroom. So in reality, all clues pointed to a crew ready to build a house or fix a school – not the insensitive street-corner evangelicals I was afraid of, always ready to talk but never willing to listen.

Several days later I’m flipping through my pocket-sized Bible by the light of the single light bulb in my hotel room, the West Virginia group on my mind. I asked myself: Why was I so bitter about a group of Christians set out to “expand the kingdom?” And, more importantly, what does expanding the kingdom really mean?

First I’ll address the bitterness, which comes with a confession. I struggle sometimes to trust other Christians with communicating the gospel because of the prevalence of poorly-directed messages about sin and repentance which present Christ-followers as judgmental, self-righteous, and hypocritical instead of compassionate, humble and authentic. But I realize that I lacked any real knowledge about their intentions, and had based everything only on their matching t-shirts and rugged footwear. Needless to say, I realized that my concerns were irrational.

Meditating on the reality of that irrationality brought me quickly to reflection on the kingdom.

You see, I’m convinced that God calls me to a career in academia. The university best positions me with my strengths and gifts to serve the least of these and to work for the expansion of the kingdom of God. But it’s not an infrequent temptation to accept the irrational sense that other callings are less significant or Christ-centered than my own. And while my passion for God’s calling has me convinced that God’s plan for me is the most incredible thing in the world, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that the central concept defining kingdom-expansion is broader than my own past, present, or future experience. In short, it’s bigger than me.

So somewhere in the process of thumbing through New Testament parables and puzzling over their meaning, I realized that the understanding for which I had been searching was hiding in plain sight.

But the answer is not about where you look; it’s about how you look at it. I learned that the answer can be seen in Ghana on the shack-lined dirt roads through which open sewers run, and in the clinics where medical supplies are scarce and good doctors even scarcer. And it can be seen in the eyes of children – some malnourished, sick or barely clothed – who respond with a mix of curiosity and excitement to the appearance of a foreign face.

In Ghana, there are so many opportunities to love. It’s a concept so plain that it could fit in a text message:

“Love one another,” he said. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34).

Interfaith work has taught me that loving others involves getting to know people personally – learning each person’s story and the philosophy that has both driven that story and been formed by it.

I think I was afraid that my fellow passengers from West Virginia weren’t aware of that lesson, and that their efforts at expanding the kingdom would suffer as a result. But something has reminded me that I shouldn’t assume they haven’t realized that Jesus valued relationships.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and the West Virginia crew will be on my flight home as well. Then I can ask them what they were doing to expand the kingdom in Ghana, and I’ll be careful this time not to make assumptions. Because although we’re provided with a rather ubiquitous model for love in the character of Christ, implementing that concept probably looks different for a second-year MD/PhD student from Illinois than it does for rugged guy from West Virginia.

What do we call ourselves?

I really enjoyed this from Skye Jethani: Why Are There No “Christians” on Twitter?

He notes that in his wanderings of Twitter profiles, “Very few used the word Christian, and no one used the word Evangelical” to describe themselves.

And then he brings up a great point, which is that “Evangelical is applied so broadly that few seem to believe it holds much meaning,” which presents an interesting issue to our discussion of evangelicals and the interfaith movement.

To add to Skye’s point, my Twitter profile identifies me by my activities and not explicitly by my faith:

MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois. Leading @globalhealthIL, co-founder of @flprotestants, long-time @uiucinterfaith enthusiast.

But I resonate with Skye’s point that the term evangelical is tricky – it seems to carry a lot of baggage in addition to holding a rather vague definition. What’s interesting to me is that I’m most comfortable calling myself an evangelical in the interfaith setting. Why?

Because I know that folks who do interfaith work aren’t going to immediately jump to conclusions based on how I describe my faith. Outside of an interfaith context, I don’t have that luxury: I fear that people will jump to conclusions and ascribe certain qualities based on some of the more prominent (and abrasive) so-called evangelicals. I’ve talked about this a little bit in the past.

At the end of the day, I’m interested in showing people the characteristics of the compassionate, loving example I follow in Jesus and to communicate the message of the gospel in the same manner. I hope that choosing to call myself an evangelical won’t lead people to jump to negative conclusions about my character before I have a chance to do that.

Perhaps this is just another reason why we need more evangelicals doing interfaith work. It’s also another example of why actions must speak louder than words.

In case you missed the link, Skye’s blog is here: http://www.skyejethani.com/why-are-there-no-%E2%80%9Cchristians%E2%80%9D-on-twitter/1204/

Kicking off a new year… two months late

I opened up an e-mail last night that has been sitting in my inbox for a while, waiting for a reply. I was shocked when I realized it was dated from January 22nd. If you know me, you know that I usually keep up with these things, but on this particular incident I dropped the ball. So where did the last month go?

For me it’s been a whirlwind of the usual mixed with a little unusual. I returned from Ghana over a month ago after leading a group of 18 other graduate students and faculty on an observational trip as part of the University of Illinois’ new Global Health Initiative. It turned out to be a perspective-shifting experience for me as I started to think about God’s calling for my life – but more on that later.

As far as I can tell, Cameron is currently occupied with the undergraduates’ greatest stressor: the Senior Thesis. Add a side of part-time job and applying to seminary for dessert and you have a complete meal with more than your daily recommended value of stress, writer’s block and sleepless nights.

Yet as busy as we have been, the time has never been more crucial for our attention to the interfaith movement.

And it’s not just because Tebow-Mania gave way to Linsanity before I really noticed that the NFL season was over or because we’re starting to feel the heat of an election year and faith identity continues to be a central issue. Instead, it’s because of the things that are happening on college campuses right now that are going to shape the way we talk about devout athletes and presidential candidates in 5, 10, 15 years.

While I was sweating away the hours between clinics and hospitals in a cramped van on dirt roads in southern Ghana, hundreds of undergraduate student leaders gathered at Emory University in Atlanta for another Interfaith Leadership Institute – learning to lead a conversation about cooperation on their campuses, suggesting that people of diverse faith backgrounds are Better Together when we gather around issues that we all care about, like fighting hunger or speaking out against human trafficking.

As an evangelical Christian watching the discourse around Jeremy Lin take place, I realized that I am not interested in a popular culture where being passionate about Jesus just adds spectacle to an already bizarre situation, like stepping up from bench-warmer to break-out star in a matter of days. But the student leaders who gathered in Atlanta this winter are having a different kind of conversation, where they are talking about building respect and understanding, and talking about similarities and differences in a way that better enables us to address great human need.

And I’ve heard from some of those young leaders, including a student at North Park University and another at Gordon College. While both institutions are rooted in Christian traditions, their students are diverse and I am excited to see the ways that the interfaith movement takes hold on those campuses.

Of course Cameron and I have ambitious plans to build on the conversation on FLP this semester including featuring some new voices and perspectives. But what’s got us really excited is where all these inspiring student leaders are going to be at the end of this semester, more specifically April 20-22nd.

They’re going to be here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the first ever Illinois Conference on Interfaith Cooperation. And so will Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, as well as several other special guests here to talk about interfaith cooperation on college campuses, best practices, challenges and successes in the work we’ve been a part of.

So you can look forward to that as well. Actually, you could even be there. Check out www.illinoisinterfaithservice.org to register.

There is good stuff coming, so stay tuned –