Tag Archives: Interfaith Cooperation

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.

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Jesus CAN Co-Exist: A Response to the Rev. Karl Schaffenburg

The Rev. Karl Schaffenburg, the rector of Grace Church in Sheboygan, WI, published a short opinion piece in an early May issue of The Living Church, a popular publication among Episcopalians. The piece, entitled simply “Why Jesus Would Not Coexist,” takes aim at the popular blue and white “Co-Exist” bumper stickers one finds on automobiles, Facebook posts, and t-shirts all over the country to say that the Christian faith remains incompatible with the idea of pluralism.

Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique actually raises some common concerns about pluralism and the place of Christianity in a pluralistic society I hear rather often while doing interfaith work, and so I thought it might be helpful to engage with him to see if his assertion that “Jesus Would Not Coexist” reflects the most accurate reading of the Gospels or a positive definition of pluralism.

To begin, Fr. Schaffenburg introduces the concept of the law of non-contradiction found in classical logic (that two contradictory claims cannot be simultaneously true). He then briefly explains the differences in the ways that the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) view Jesus. He argues on the basis of John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”) that “Jesus cannot coexist with contradictory claims to truth made in other faiths. If Jesus had been content with coexistence he might have escaped crucifixion. We should live peaceably with all people (Rom. 12:18), but we ought not reduce this peace to a glib assertion that all paths lead to God. The assertion that all faiths are the same and there is no exclusive truth is itself a doctrine, and one that excludes all but the universalist. It represents an incoherent quest for tolerance.”

I would have to agree with Fr. Schaffenburg that such a view indeed “represents an incoherent quest for tolerance,” yet I’m not so sure that the crucifixion stands as the best example to support his claim, nor that “tolerance,” however conceived, necessitates universalism. If what Fr. Schaffenburg aims to do is point to the veracity of the Christian faith, I stand with him in this claim; I think it is the “true” faith (otherwise I wouldn’t be one). That said, to be a Christian does not mean I cannot exist alongside other faiths in a positive and productive way that includes cooperation and collaboration.

To his credit, Fr. Schaffenburg does grant that elements of truth can be found in other faiths (this, he notes, is a “classical Christian doctrine”). Yet ends his piece by labeling the “real danger of COEXIST” as “its underlying assumption that how we live is ultimately a matter of human agency,” arguing that the “lessons of history… make it clear that we will never achieve peace and harmony on our own.” He critiques the view held by some Christians that attaining piece on earth is equivalent to the kingdom of Heaven, and concludes by saying, “Coexistence that treats Jesus Christ merely as an important moral teacher disregards that he revealed himself as God and reduces the saving act of God to a set of rules. It claims that if we live in a certain way we will attain salvation, thus toying with Pelagianism. For this reason, COEXIST is unworthy of anything more than a bumper sticker.”

There’s a lot to tease out in Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique. In fact, I would argue that the biggest issue I have with his editorial is that it simply sets out to do too much—arguing against universalism, certain views about salvation, the Kingdom of God, and Pelagianism—all in a short piece about a bumper sticker.

But there’s something else here, too. Beneath Fr. Schaffenburg’s many aims lies the assumption that pluralism—to “coexist”—requires one to give up the tenets of their own faith or, in the case of the Christian, to relegate Jesus Christ to the margins for the sake of an ideal of world peace.

Yet I would argue that this is not the sentiment that lies behind the “Coexist” bumper-sticker, nor is it the understanding of pluralism that undergirds our work at FLP… or even of Fr. Schaffenburg himself.

We coexist every day—at work, at school, in airports, in the grocery store. My convictions as a Christian do not limit me to interact only with other Christians, but rather informs the way that I work in the world. Indeed, Jesus himself coexisted with those he encountered; it was they who could not coexist with him.

Perhaps a healthier view of pluralism and coexistence can be found on this very website, on the “Pluralism” tab at the top of the page. Permit me to conclude by quoting it.

When we say pluralism, what do we mean? Good question.

We follow a model of interfaith engagement developed by the Chicago-based non-profit named the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

IFYC’s approach to interfaith engagement pulls heavily from the work of Harvard scholar Diana Eck and revolves around three components:

            1.) Respect for individual religious or nonreligious identity.

Respect for identity means that everyone can bring their full identities to this work. There’s space for people to believe that they are right and others are wrong, and that their beliefs are true and others’ are not. Interfaithcooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; no one has to concede exclusive truth claims to be part of it – whether you are an Orthodox Jew, a conservative Christian, or an atheist, you are welcome to the table of      interfaith cooperation.

                 2.) Mutually inspiring relationships.

Interfaith cooperation builds relationships across religious and nonreligious   boundaries, while creating space for real conversations about disagreements and difference and a sense that each person gains from the relationship.

            3.) Common action for the common good.

Interfaith cooperation is based on the conviction that people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds have shared values that call them to make the world a better place. By working together on local and global        projects based on these shared values, individuals learn to connect to those    who are different from them while strengthening their communities.

Their idea is simple: face-to-face interaction, as well as conversations with those with whom we disagree, can be a means for mitigating hate and increasing understanding. We think it’s a pretty good idea.

IFYC focuses on shared values and does not suppose or support shared theologies. So do we.

We believe that you don’t have to water-down your own religious tradition in order to participate in interfaith cooperation. Instead, you are encouraged to fully embrace your own tradition and share its distinctives with others. This is our idea of pluralism.

One day (God willing and the people consenting!) I hope to be a priest with as much experience as Fr. Schaffenburg, and I hope that I can carry a constructive definition of coexistence with me in my ministry that facilitates interactions with those of other traditions to work for the greater good while still retaining the potency and vitality of the Christian faith.

 

 

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“I will, with God’s help”

As a member of The Episcopal Church and someone involved in their ecumenical and interreligious work on a national and global level, I have begun to delve deeper into my own tradition for sources that nurture our work to foster mutual understanding amongst our brothers and sisters of other faiths.

While The Episcopal Church has an important historical legacy for building interfaith understanding and relationships – one that I cannot fully go into here – I have found that one of the best places for Episcopalians to begin interfaith work is, you guessed it, our liturgy.

In the Anglican tradition we hold fervently to the motto “praying shapes believing”. It comes from the Latin: lex orandi lex credendi, which translates to “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It means that the words we utter together to God hold profound weight in our life. Verbal and communal markers, they carve deeper into the bedrock of our belief through repetition until our hands and feet respond to the flood.

Just as a stream wends its way through rock and soil to carve a path, gradually building its momentum and depth into a river, so also I believe our liturgy can embed itself in us, molding and moving us into action, directing and expanding our imaginations, hearts and wills towards a greater collective theological and social consciousness.

So if our prayers, beliefs and actions are so closely knit together, then what are we praying?

This is exactly where I, and many others past and present, have found the words of the Baptismal Covenant to be a deep well and foundation for enabling, fashioning, and sustaining our work to build bridges and mutual understanding amongst those of other faiths.

I was baptized as an infant so I do not recall the memory well (or at all). But I hold this liturgy dear today, knowing that my family and community prayed it over me all those years ago so that I can now claim it as my own, confirm the faith of my baptism, and strive to live out these promises moving forward.

The Baptismal Covenant is found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the hallmark resource which embodies the corporate, liturgical, sacramental and ordered Anglican moral vision (the 1979 version is distinctly Episcopal). It is comprised in true catechetical form: it begins with an affirmation of belief in the classical Christian doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed and then includes a question-and-answer format with five ethically-driven questions at the end.

It is this question-and-answer portion which I find particularly compelling, and offer it here as a guiding prayer, resource and resolve for crossing the borders of difference and ministering in interfaith contexts.

Celebrant    Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant    Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?

People       I will, with God’s help.

(Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305)

As we continue to renew our faith this Easter season, it is my hope that Christians of all backgrounds would find the boldness to make these promises over and over again – only and always with God’s help – and let the praying shape the believing as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, even those most different from us.

Carrie Diaz-Littauer is a member of The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. She is currently an editorial consultant for various international and ecumenical NGOs in Geneva, Switzerland. She holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

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FLP in Atlanta: Reflections on the First Ever IFYC Alumni Gathering

By Cameron Nations

Maybe it was the impromptu interfaith dialogue with the belly dancer who surprised us at our table at the Turkish restaurant on the first night of the conference. Or maybe it was the overwhelming optimism and energy surrounding the largest Interfaith Leadership Institute in IFYC history. Whatever it was, something made the first ever gathering of IFYC alumni in Atlanta more than a mere memorable experience.

For over two days about 30 of us sat in a meeting room in the Sheraton in downtown Atlanta to discuss the ways in which we are using our interfaith training in our post-undergrad lives.

For some, this extension of their interfaith work came rather easily as part of their current job or occupation. For others, working interfaith engagement into their daily lives did not come as naturally. Yet both perspectives offered a glimpse of what the future of the interfaith movement could (and will) look like over the next couple of years as IFYC’s alumni base explodes from around 550 to over 2,000 young adults.

Apart from the joys of the connections—both old and new—strengthened and forged over the course of the weekend, the sessions also focused on broader questions such as ways of leveraging social capital for the common good and judicious use of social media in our professional lives. The IFYC Alumni gathering proved an enriching time of building new relationships and new strategies to address our growing interfaith reality.

For part of our time we broke into smaller sector-based groups that focused on those working in “Religious and Intentionally Secular Communities,” “Media,” “Non-profit,” and “Higher Ed.”

Not surprisingly, I found myself (along with other seminarians and ministers) in the “Religious Communities” group with fellow Faith Line Protestants contributor Anne-Marie Roderick. Amber Hacker, who also writes for FLP in addition to her duties with IFYC, led the group. Along with us sat sometime FLP writer Nick Price, and together with our group we discussed the need for the development of theologies of interfaith cooperation in our respective traditions and ways in which we might see this development through to fruition.

The discussions throughout the alumni gathering helped us to refine FLP’s vision and mission to offer a place for constructive dialogue around the areas of interfaith cooperation and evangelism. Faith Line Protestants might also be a place for fostering conversations that move toward these theologies of interfaith cooperation mentioned in our sector group sessions.

Even outside our sector group quite a few people expressed interest in FLP’s mission, vision, and possible importance to the interfaith discussion. Case in point:
photo(2)

This word cloud shows the post-gathering aspirations of the alumni. (Notice how our size compares to a certain other acronym. Heh-heh.) This word cloud expressed why the alumni gathering was more than just a memorable experience: it stood as evidence of the transformation that IFYC has had on the lives of all those who have had the privilege to go through their programs, and the support that they give to the leaders they foster. The gathering was, in short, the ways in which interfaith cooperation is being made a cultural norm. And it was humbling to behold.

As FLP moves forward over the coming months, we will continue to define our roles behind the scenes to better bring you regular, thought-provoking content. Join us! Be a part of the conversation.

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Prophets, Questions, and a Dream

As we continue to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, check out this Sojourners post by Joe Kay, “Prophets, Questions, and a Dream.”

Here’s a taste: “Prophets are always asking questions. Tough questions. Unsettling questions. Questions that they pose to themselves, then try to answer by how they live.”

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Advent, Apocalypse, and Interfaith Cooperation?

As a seminary student, I have spent a lot of time in the classroom learning about the Bible. But this past Sunday I just preached for the first time at the main service of my Episcopal church in New York City, standing on a high-rise lectern in front of 150+ churchgoers. It didn’t make it any easier that this week was a pretty important one in the liturgical calendar—Sunday was the first day of the entire church year, and the first Sunday of Advent (the season that leads up to Christmas). The fascinating thing about the lectionary texts that kick off the New Year is that they are apocalyptic—they’re not about fresh starts or new beginnings; instead, they warn believers to prepare for judgment at the end of the world.

As I worked on my sermon, it struck me that the Second Coming of Christ is probably not a topic of many interfaith discussions. But why isn’t it? I started to realize that Christian anticipation of the Second Coming actually has a lot to do with building a future of interfaith cooperation.

The Second (or final) Coming is the idea that Jesus will return to earth at some unknown time to the finish the work he began over 2,000 years ago. While most mainline Christian denominations agree that Jesus will return, the exact nature of that return is heavily debated. Some churches emphasize their belief in the idea of a rapture in which the people of the world will be divided. These traditions hold that there will be war, fire, and severe suffering until Jesus arrives to establish the Kingdom of God with those who have remained faithful.

Other Christians envision a broken world that is miraculously revived through the return of Jesus, who is able to establish his Kingdom of love, peace, and justice for all people on earth.

In both cases, and in all the many beliefs not cited here, Christians are asked to bear witness to the possibility that the end of world, as we know it, is drawing near. This means that Christians are called to live in a way that continuously prepares for the return of Jesus. We have to ask ourselves, to what world do we want Jesus to return? What do we want the world to be like when our Savior arrives?

If you are part of a Christian tradition that observes the liturgical calendar, then you know that Advent is our main season for preparation—but Christians are called to prepare for the Coming of the Lord at all times, not just at appointed seasons. I want to prepare a world for Jesus in which Christians are kind neighbors to those of other religious traditions. I want to prepare a world in which there is an end to poverty, an end to bullying, and an end to greed. I want to prepare my own heart for Jesus by striving to spend more time in prayer than I do on social media, more time building community than I do complaining about how my communities aren’t strong enough.

How will you prepare for the Coming of Christ? In what kind of world do you want to meet Jesus?

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Glimmers of Hope

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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?

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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.

 

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