Bearing Christian Witness in an Interfaith World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Joseph Lemuel Morrow

Religion is often mentioned among the subjects one should not discuss in public. My current ministry with colleges and universities involves getting people to do just the opposite. In the everyday world, our religious and philosophical world views remain largely invisible. Many times this is intentional, in order to avoid the appearance of disrespecting others. However, our beliefs themselves continue to exert their influence on us and our common life in barely perceptible but very powerful ways.

Sometimes, the work of a pastor outside the parish feels the same way.

Photo by Interfaith Youth Core

I work for the national not-for-profit organization Interfaith Youth Core. It’s not Christian, but interfaith. It’s not religious, but civic. We focus primarily within higher education. At first glance, our mission may appear rather incongruent with my pastoral identity. After all, many see a pastor as someone whose primary duty is the care or healing of souls. In my case,  because not everyone in our organization and our field shares my faith perspective or even desires to, my pastoral disposition gets rerouted and channeled in different directions.

But if you think about, that is no different than what life is like for the majority of US Christians, and many others around the globe, who live and work in communities or institutions where their particular faith is not shared. In most cases, their Christian faith is not the core value driving local institutions. Yet, while outside the parish our Christian identities are lie beneath the surface, the questions driving contemporary Christian life are front and center.

Us Christians are called into a multi-religious society, and that raises the question: How do Christians live justly and virtuously with their diverse neighbors? Christian identity can’t be discarded as easily as the adhesive name tags we use in worship, and so we ask: How can we be the Church not just huddled in our worship, but on college campuses, our workplaces, and the halls of political power?

I believe my work at Interfaith Youth Core is about wrestling with those key questions, and has become even more salient in our perilous political and social moment. It is about learning to bear Christian witness in the diaspora of public life, where we must be honestly ourselves and decisively for our neighbor.

I wear many hats in pursuit of those questions. Sometimes I serve as a chaplain to chaplains, because interfaith efforts tend be driven by religious life staff, who are predominantly Christian. Other times, I share in the interpretive work of colleges and universities who need to develop strategies of approaching religious diversity that are grounded in Christian traditions. Often I find myself networking and cultivating relationships between Christians who want to build community across religious difference, but believe acting in partnership is more fruitful that working in isolation.  

I’m comfortable in this role because I feel I’m attending to an oft neglected dimension of our ministry and witness. I sit in a line of forebears for whom how Christians act in public is a big concern. My great grandfather, Rev. Dr. Frank Williams, was a segregation-era Presbyterian pastor in Alabama who bridged ministry with work in construction and real estate. He eventually saw that through his economic activity he was modeling his religious and social ideals: better labor relations, equitable and affordable housing, civil rights for all citizens.

My ministry at Interfaith Youth Core draws on that tradition. I model bridge-building in a time of political division and social segregation. As a Presbyterian teaching elder, my presence among co-workers and higher education colleagues demonstrates that the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Church broadly speaking, desires to accompany people in their public struggles to be better neighbors. And as someone working in a non-profit, my ministry offers insights into social entrepreneurship and prepares the church to be present in society in adaptive ways that will bear a strong and sustainable witness.

When Christians gather in the parish, we do so in sanctuaries built to reflect awe and wonder that characterize God. Liturgists and preachers remind us of our faith story. Hospitality and holiness are on display in both the broken bread of Eucharist and the coffee or tea served after worship. In a similar way, when Christians step out of the parish and into the public sphere, we need structures, relationships, and occasions that guide and comfort us in our pilgrim journey.  Ministries, such as the one I serve, through an interfaith non-profit, provide tabernacles to guide our way.


Joseph L. Morrow is a teaching elder of the PC(USA) working as Campus Engagement Manager for Interfaith Youth Core. He is a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee. Joe lives in Chicago with his wife Sung Yeon and daughter Ella, where they worship with Edgewater Presbyterian Church.