Tag Archives: Better Together

A spiritual calling to interfaith work

This piece was originally published on the Interfaith Youth Core blog at http://www.ifyc.org/content/spiritual-calling-interfaith-work.

Last Thursday night I found myself at the largest interfaith dialogue the University of Illinois has ever seen. Directly north of the iconic Assembly Hall and Memorial Stadium on campus, 600 people packed into a multipurpose room at our beautiful Activities and Recreation Center – the same room where we’ll kick off the Illinois Conference on Interfaith Collaboration in just under a month.

The event, a Muslim-Christian dialogue between academics Zeki Saritoprak and Peter Kreeft, was well-attended by people from many traditions, but I’m willing to bet that just about every Christian fellowship on campus was represented. So while I stood in the back waiting to meet some friends from Interfaith in Action, the relatively high density of Cru, InterVarsity (IV) and Navigators shirts inspired some reflection.

As a Christian, I value the sort of community that a Christian fellowship provides. However, I also value the opportunity to share the message of my faith with others. In reflecting, I thought back to my days as a Bible study leader with IV – my struggle to balance over-commitment to academics and extracurricular activities and an evangelism seminar my junior year that convicted me not to renew my time-consuming commitments to leadership with IV.

Why? Because the take-home message of the seminar was simple: stop doing so many things with just Christians and start doing things with people from a different background. It’s through those relationships that you will show others who Jesus is.

That seminar confirmed my spiritual calling to interfaith work.

I thought about where I have come since then. One year after that retreat, I attended an IFYC conference at Northwestern University. Six months later, we organized more than 5,000 people in packaging 1,000,000 meals for earthquake victims in Haiti, Champaign-Urbana’s largest ever interfaith service project. Six months after that, I found myself in front of the White House with 200 other student leaders at the first ever Interfaith Leadership Institute.

As a student speaker in the opening session of that ILI, I remember the excitement of telling my parents – both of whom are Christians and great supporters of my involvement in interfaith work – about how I knew that I had heard God’s call correctly: I had been given the opportunity to go to the White House to tell 200 hundred other students about the ways that Jesus inspires me to serve others.

But I realize now that the real indicators of God’s desire come in less obvious, but more meaningful forms. Like those of the friends I was meeting at that dialogue last Thursday night.

They are people like Adam, an atheist and an inspiring leader with whom I get to work closely on a regular basis. Or Gautam, an old friend from my hometown with Jain and Hindu heritage – and now a colleague in interfaith work on our campus. Or Adham, an American Muslim of Syrian descent who is one of the University of Illinois’ emerging young interfaith leaders. But that’s just a few – there are innumerable others who I have met through interfaith work – some in just short conversations, others as collaborators and friends in long-term projects.

What I realized while waiting in the back of that multipurpose room last Thursday night was that these relationships are the real reason I know my spiritual calling to do interfaith work is true. Because I’m doing something that I wasn’t doing before, something that my faith was instructing me to do all along – I’m building inspiring relationships with people of different backgrounds.

Relationships like this are built at events like the IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institutes, which are this summer in Chicago (June 18-21, 2012) and Philadelphia (July 16-19). Also, consider joining us at the University of Illinois April 20th-22nd for the inaugural Illinois Conference on Interfaith Cooperation. We have some special guests including Eboo PatelJim WallisChris Stedman and Valarie Kaur.

And you might even get to meet Adam, Gautam or Adham…

Share Button

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 –

Share Button

A practical guide for engaging evangelicals in interfaith work

In conversations at the Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington D.C. this week I encountered several interfaith leaders – both college students and staff – who struggle with engaging the evangelical communities on their campus.  I hope this will serve as a practical guide for interfaith leaders in similar situations.

I frequently encounter students, staff, and faculty involved in interfaith work who struggle to involve evangelical students in the interfaith movement. While there’s no hard and fast answer, here is a practical guide from an evangelical about evangelicals, hoping to bolster evangelical participation in the interfaith movement.

1. Set up a safe space

First, communicate the concept of interfaith cooperation. Diana Eck’s definition is particularly helpful here:

  • Respect for religious identity
  • Mutually inspiring relationships
  • Common action for the common good

The two major barriers to interfaith involvement for evangelicals are (1) a fear that it promotes theological pluralism or universalism and (2) the disinterest that results from a perceived lack of opportunities to convert others. Clear communication of the definition of interfaith cooperation will mitigate the former and inform the latter. Evangelicalism must be respected for the interfaith movement to be patent — even if it means tolerating some degree of proselytization. Proselytization, however, can only be tolerated in the interfaith movement if it respects the religious identity of those who are proselytized, thus requiring that the evangelical make a careful examination of their technique.

Proselytization that occurs in the setting of an interfaith dialogue is another conversation, and must be handled on a case-by-case basis.

2. Emphasize the invitation

When I think about the ministry of Christ, I recognize three prominent themes: storytelling (including parables and sermons), relationships (including those with ‘sinners’ and societal outcasts), and service. Similarly, the tenants of the interfaith movement are: storytelling, relationships, and service.

To me, an invitation to interfaith cooperation is an invitation to emulate Christ (which naturally appeals to my evangelical worldview). You might not be in a position to convince evangelicals on your campus of this idea, but you can make an invitation that will appeal to anyone with evangelical convictions. The interfaith movement is an invitation to talk about Christ (including the concept of salvation) and to demonstrate the compassion with which Christ engaged the world.

It’s also an opportunity to learn more about other religious and non-religious traditions, which even the most aggressive evangelicals should see as an opportunity to equip themselves with knowledge relevant to a mission to communicate the gospel to people of other faiths.

3. Let other evangelicals help

The Christian gospel can be communicated in the interfaith movement. A discussion of sin and salvation is probable. An invitation to explore the idea of a personal relationship with God is possible – but there is a learned approach through the interfaith experience and an argument about the limitations of evangelical strategy that often must necessarily take place.

Non-evangelicals cannot easily have that argument with evangelicals, but other evangelicals can. This is the mission of Faith Line Protestants, so you are invited to point to us as a resource in your efforts to engage evangelicals on your campus.

Cameron and I are available for lectures, seminars, and discussions. Feel free to contact us through the contact page on this site — and good luck!

Share Button

What Being a Peacemaker Really Looks Like

In the introduction to his book, Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel opens with an account of the trial of Eric Rudolph.  Though perhaps most known for detonating bombs at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Rudolph also bombed several other sites in the two years following the Olympics before he went into hiding in the Appalachian wilderness.  Patel describes how Rudolph showed no remorse for his actions:

“In fact, Rudolph is proud and defiant.  He lectures the judge on the righteousness of his actions.  He gloats as he recalls federal agents passing within steps of his hiding place.  He unabashedly states that abortion, homosexuality, and all hints of ‘global socialism’ still need to be ‘ruthlessly opposed.’  He does this in the name of Christianity, quoting from the New Testament: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’”

Rudolph faced a world different from the one he had constructed in his mind.  The moral code he had internalized didn’t match with what he saw going on around him.  And he decided that the way to reconcile these differences was to murder and destroy.

I believe we all face the crisis that Eric Rudolph faced.  When our faith traditions provide guidelines for what is right and wrong, we will encounter others who live by a different standard.  We will find those with whom we disagree.  The tension may be moral, theological, or preferential.

So how do we respond?  Thankfully, very few respond the way Eric Rudolph did.  For Christians, the Bible provides clear direction on why Rudolph’s actions were wrong.  But I know many Christians who would respond with violence of another form.  A violence that others do not see, but exists nonetheless.  I know because I’m guilty of such violence as well.

I’m referring to the violence we commit in our hearts – the judgment we pass as we perceive someone in an act of “wrongdoing,” the pride we feel when we interpret our lives to be more excellent than another’s, the righteousness upon which we gloat as others fall below our personal standards.  While such responses are devoid of the violence that placed Rudolph in prison with four consecutive life terms, they also lack the quality that could have caused Rudolph to build bridges instead of bombs: love.

The Bible tells the story of Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).  Zacchaeus was a tax collector (and possibly a cheating one at that) and the sort of man about whom others muttered under their breath (Luke 19:7).  Whether it was his fault or not, you might say that Zacchaeus was the kind of person with whom religious people disagreed.  But instead of joining in the muttering, Jesus invited himself to be Zacchaeus’ guest, shocking those around him who would rather criticize Zacchaeus than associate with him.

What if Eric Rudolph had a real understanding of the Christian faith instead of a warped understanding of justice?  Imagine how this world would be different if he had pursued peace instead of violence, but with the same determination.  Instead of building bombs, he would have been building relationships, instead of lashing out with violence, he would have been reaching out through service.

In a famous sermon depicted in the New Testament, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9).  I believe that when Christians build relationships instead of condemning those with whom we don’t agree (whether it is morally or theologically), we are being peacemakers.  In a world where violence is used too often to solve issues of religious difference, our faith compels us to be at the forefront of making peace.

Thus, we are also compelled to be interfaith leaders.  And remarkably, when we create interfaith relationships, we find that there is plenty about which we do agree.  These are not realizations that blur the boundaries between religions, but understandings that we are better working together for positive change.  When we are building bridges instead of bombs – that is when we are peacemakers.

—-

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

Share Button