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.

What makes Evangelicals Different?

I appreciated this piece over at HuffPo by Brett McCracken. He wrties,

Evangelical difference should not be about retreating from or picking battles with the culture, but rather embracing the path of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship,” a commitment to living in the footsteps of Christ, even if it means living out of the mainstream of culture.

This is a good reminder for me to consider how I am “set apart” as a Christian while interacting in a relevant way with the world around me. That is why the contributors at Faith Line Protestants are so committed articulating our theology of interfaith cooperation. I do not engage in interfaith cooperation and dialogue so that I can “shed the baggage of my grandmother’s religion,” but rather to (as McCracken writes) “genuinely and passionately follow after Christ, manifesting through their lives something refreshingly different.”

At least that is my hope.

Glimmers of Hope

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I’ve been doing full-time interfaith work at a university for a year now. During the week my days are filled with conversations about pluralism and interfaith cooperation, dialogue and safe space, civic action and religious and non-religious identity. It is my job to plan events and programs for college students in order to promote religious pluralism on campus, religious literacy (that includes understanding around religious and non-religious identity), and common action for the common good across religious difference. This is my normal.

I am so convinced of the importance of my work that I often take it for granted, but the truth is – not everyone is convinced that interfaith dialogue and cooperation are necessary or even relevant. After a year of full-time interfaith work I’ve heard from a lot of different reasons why interfaith work is a waste of time. One could assume that I’d be used to it – but every time I encounter yet another person with yet another reason to be skeptical of interfaith work I’m still caught off guard.

A few weeks back I was (wo)manning a table for the Interfaith Center at a training workshop for higher education professionals. I was there to provide information on the Interfaith Center and what it offers to students as far as programs, services and events. One by one trainees came by my table and I was pleased with the amount of enthusiasm with which people were responding. The responses were so overwhelmingly positive that I was almost shocked when one particular trainee’s attitude didn’t match those of prior encounters.

At first it seemed (let’s call him Bob) Bob and I were on the same page – we agreed that the university has students of diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds (believe it or not it can be difficult to get some people to recognize this). Our conversation developed into misconceptions of Islam, “In fact,” he continued, “what many students, or people in general don’t even realize, is that Islam was founded as one of the most peaceful religions in the world.”

I nodded, “Yes there’s so much students don’t know about other religions, that’s why we’re here – to help them learn and understand these differences in an interactive, engaging, and personal level.” He looked at me quizzically – though I initially mistook his look for one of agreement, so I went on, “One of our programs is called Coffee and Conversation. Once or twice a month throughout the Academic Year we bring in a religious leader, faculty, or staff member to lead a one hour casual conversation about a particular religious or non-religious identity or current event relating to religion. We’re having a hard time finding people to participate this year and since you seem to have so much knowledge on religion – perhaps you’d be interested in leading one of these Coffee and Conversations?”

Bob smiled weakly, “Yeah – I seriously doubt it. I’m one of those who are of the opinion that religion has done, and does, more harm in the world than good. I wouldn’t find something like that to be productive.”

I persisted, “but that’s exactly the point. A lot of people are in agreement with you – that religion does more harm than good – but I think it’s actually fear, misunderstanding, lack of education and interpersonal relationships that does the harm, not the religion itself. If we work hard to build understanding across difference, then a lot of that division, and violence, and hatred, and harm, can be prevented.”

He didn’t bite.

Sigh.

It’s easy to feel a little defeated after encounters like these. Sometimes I almost feel convinced that perhaps I’m being naive and too idealistic to think that interfaith dialogue and cooperation can have any kind of impact.

But then I’m usually given a glimmer of hope.

The news coming out of Egypt the last month has been grim. I, like many others, have not kept up with the news as much as I should. I would catch glimpses of the goings-on in Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt on NPR during my morning commute, CNN and various articles found on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Every bit of news seemed more bleak than the last.

But then a particular photo went viral. I’m sure you’ve seen it – a group of Egyptian Muslim men wearing traditional white garb are holding hands circling an Egyptian Catholic Church in an effort to protect the church and the Christians attending mass inside from the threat of pillaging at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is news of this happening all over Egypt – Muslims protecting Christian churches from destruction. Equally encouraging was the response of some Christians to those Muslims risking their lives to save their church buildings. In response Christians encouraged Muslims to not put themselves in danger in order to protect their church building. I also saw another beautiful image – one of Christians holding hands in Tahrir Square circling Muslims during prayer who would be left vulnerable during protests.

In the midst of the grimly bleak news out of Egypt – these images stand as our glimmers of hope. These images beautifully illustrate the importance of interfaith cooperation. Building understanding and love across religious difference has real consequences.

I disagree with Bob. Religion doesn’t do more harm than good; further, religious and non-religious difference doesn’t have to do more harm than good. When presented with these images I had to ask myself – as a Christian would I be willing to risk my life to protect a Mosque? Would I be willing to risk harm to myself to stand guard around a group or praying Muslims? I hope I would, but I can’t be too sure. I truly believe Jesus would – and I believe Jesus would urge me to do the same. [John 15:13]

I also know that I am passionate about cultivating a generation that would answer “yes” to that question without hesitation. There is hope in interfaith cooperation. For every act of interfaith conflict and division I believe there stands an illustration of interfaith cooperation and unity – our glimmers of hope.

And where those illustrations of cooperation and unity don’t yet exist, I believe that with a little work, persistence and yes, prayer, they can exist.

Where have you seen glimmers of hope lately?

A Milestone

2013-08-14 08.52.03Not long after launching Faith Line Protestants I hung a bulletin board in my bedroom and outlined spaces for the major projects on which I was working. I then hung post-it notes with short-term and long-term goals for each project.

We’ve recently realized one of my long-term goals that has been hanging for more than two years in the “Faith Line Protestants” section of that board. That’s just one of the reasons I’m excited that Anthony Fatta is joining our contributor rotation on Faith Line Protestants. He’s our fourth new contributor since the re-launch last month, and offers an exciting perspective as an alum of Interfaith Youth Core programs and current Associate Pastor at a United Methodist Church in California.

Take a minute to check out Anthony’s first post to FLP, Mission Trip Potential.

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?

A new strategy for the church

Richard Stearns writes:

I’ve seen Christians earn a fresh hearing for the gospel as they worked alongside Muslims and Buddhists providing a day care for the children of prostitutes. In Africa I’ve seen Christians and Muslims learn to respect each other’s faith as they work to stop the AIDS crisis. I have seen Christians working on behalf of the poor but doing so alongside governments accused of human rights abuses. What I get to see in the arena of international development, the church must also do in the arenas of culture, politics, business, art, science and entertainment.

It’s encouraging to see that Stearns’ vision for a new strategy for the church includes interfaith engagement. Read the piece at http://www.qideas.org/blog/its-time-for-a-new-strategy.aspx.

Interfaith Work is Child’s Play

I have heard Jesus’ famous statement in Matthew 18 about becoming like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven many times, but this verse has taken on special meaning for me over the last few months. Unlike many other seminary students who use their long summer break to take extra classes, work for a local parish, or even complete their Clinical Pastoral Education–I decided to take another route.  I have spent the entire summer babysitting.

I work for a few families each week and, with some other odd jobs here and there, have managed to make it a more than full-time gig. To be honest, babysitting has been more challenging than any other job I’ve held. Of course it is fun and enriching in many ways, but it can also be draining, frustrating, and confusing. When Jesus instructed us to become like little children did he mean that we should throw temper tantrums when our caretakers refuse to buy us ice cream (after we already had an ice cream earlier in the day!)? Did Jesus mean that we should refuse to go to bed until someone has read us every single book we own, sung us all of our favorite songs, and made several trips to the kitchen to get us water and snacks even after we’ve brushed our teeth? Did Jesus mean we should refuse to share our toys with other kids at the park, or say mean things to our siblings? Okay, enough complaining. I know that Jesus meant he wanted us to become trusting, open-hearted, and earnest in that way that is difficult for even the most thoughtful adults, but seems to come to kids so naturally. Jesus wanted us to have the kind of awe for God’s creation that is part of each child’s journey through the world. But maybe Jesus also knew that children don’t always fit the angelic trope that many readers of Matthew 18 would like them to.  Children fight, lie, cheat, and do mean things, just like the rest of us.

Matthew 18:4 continues: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus actually instructs us to become “humble” or “lowly” like children, to become small. Despite their eccentricities, children are undeniably humble. They ask tons of questions and they aren’t afraid to say so when they don’t understand. They let their curiosity and their imaginations lead them into new relationships and new experiences, regardless of difference. One of the girls I babysit makes friends everywhere we go by approaching a child and asking: “How old are you?” After the child answers, she says: “Oh, I’m four. Not four and a half, just four. Do you want to play with me?” She is bold and confident, but so completely childlike in her direct approach to friendship.

I think we Christians can learn from children as we explore interfaith cooperation. As we strive to become like children, let us learn to take a couple steps back. Let’s ask questions, let’s seek out new friendships without letting our judgments and intellects get in the way; let’s figure out how to play and work together.

 

Learning from our Muslim neighbors during Ramadan

As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move toward relationships with those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and in need of love. We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may or may not agree with. No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.

From Jon Huckins at Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog: http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/07/29/ramadan-shared-table-and-following-jesus