Growing up an Evangelical Christian I understood evangelism as a spiritual practice central and essential to my Christian identity. My experience with people of different religions was limited and in my few choice encounters with religious non-Christians, I am ashamed to say I saw them only as souls to save.
Though as a student at Flagler College I was a Religion major, minoring in youth ministry, it was not until my junior year of college that I was introduced to interfaith dialogue and to theologians such as Jacques Dupuis and Thomas Merton. I liked the idea, but wrestled with interfaith dialogue, questioning its relevance to Christian practice when the goal of such interactions was not conversion of the other.
Then I met Rabbi Mark.
Rabbi Mark Goldman, a Reform Rabbi and adjunct professor at Flagler, challenged his students to better understand their own faith by engaging in relationships with people of other faiths. To this day I admire his love of God and passion for people. His great ability to articulate his own faith and what it means for his life challenged me to better articulate my own.
Yet even in light of my relationship with Rabbi Mark, I continuously compartmentalized my two areas of study, rarely understanding one to be relevant to the other.
Then I took a class here at Princeton Theological Seminary called “Engaging Youth in Interfaith Leadership.” The class, co-led by IFYC’s Cassie Meyer and Eboo Patel and Seminary professor Kenda Dean, gave my fellow graduate students and me an opportunity to explore concepts of interfaith dialogue and how they are relevant for youth ministry.
Our class wrestled to understand how interfaith work is relevant for Christian faith and ministry. Many of us expressed that we understood interfaith work and dialogue as important but were unable to theologically articulate why. Instead we danced around the idea of interfaith dialogue with reasons having seemingly nothing to do with our Christian faith. Some in the class, including myself, had come to realize interfaith dialogue as fruitful and important, but had compartmentalized our interfaith relationships from our Christian faith and practice.
It was at this point that Eboo asked us, “What is it about Jesus that makes you want to do interfaith work?”
I then realized that for me Jesus had been the missing link between interfaith dialogue, Christian practice and youth ministry. Jesus tells us in Mark 2 that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. The kind of love to which Jesus calls me is a relational love. Christ’s love in the Gospels exemplifies love in God’s Kingdom. As Christians we are called to love as Christ loved.
The love of God accepts all people, embraces all people, and hopes for all people, including those of other faiths. Interfaith dialogue is essential to Christian practice because love and relationship is essential to Christian practice. When I made this connection, it was not difficult to make the next connection to youth ministry.
In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” Interfaith work gives young people an opportunity to be peacemakers in a very real and very practical way. Isn’t the role of Christian youth ministry to equip young people to understand their role as Children of God in the Kingdom of God?
I have come to understand that interfaith work in youth ministry enables young people to be paradigms of peace in a violent world while equipping them to be examples of God’s love and a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
This post was originally published on Interfaith Youth Core’s Blog on June 1, 2011