Posts

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Turnaround Tuesday

Members of Turnaround Tuesday, a campaign of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, give a testimony presentation at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore.

Turnaround Tuesday was born of the engagement of BUILD member churches with their communities and has grown into a jobs movement that is making a unique and powerful contribution to the fight against recidivism and for neighborhood revitalization in Baltimore City. Sponsored by BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a broad-based community power organization, Turnaround Tuesday has connected 366 people to employment with living wages and high retention rates in 2.5 years. Turnaround Tuesday’s community-based, open door approach makes it uniquely accessible to jobseekers experiencing any barriers to employment, and it works especially hard to attract and employ returning citizens. A combination of intensive relationship building with participants and employers including the delivery of essential skills, leadership development, and issue organizing experiences has made Turnaround Tuesday into one of Baltimore’s most respected jobs pipelines.

Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

2017 National Gathering Reflection: Tim Hart-Andersen

Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN, gives a reflection on interfaith dialogue during Tuesday morning worship at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Tim has also made his manuscript available as a resource:

We are grateful to Tim for providing his thoughts; to Meghan Gage-Finn for coordinating the video and text components of the reflection; and to Eric Adams for editing providing the video to be used during this reflection.

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.

Finding My Call on Campus, Finding My Faith in Interfaith

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 Laura Brekke

My full title is Director of Religious Diversity.

It’s an interesting title as it doesn’t explicitly name me as a minister.

My job itself operates into two spheres – on the one hand, I am the campus minister for our Protestant Christian students. I have a Christian diversity intern, and lead a weekly Bible study. I advise three Protestant groups, I offer special Protestant worship opportunities. On the other hand, I am also chaplain to all religious and spiritual communities beyond the Christian umbrella. I am the chaplain for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, those who identify as spiritual but not religious, and so on. I lead bi-weekly interfaith dinner discussions that offer opportunities to engage in conversations from race and religion to religion and pop culture with peers from different religious and spiritual traditions. I support diverse holy day celebrations, advise the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on topics specific to religious diversity.

My parish extends to more than five thousand students; Catholic, Protestant and of many religious traditions. My preaching is less often behind a pulpit and more often in the form of a lecture. I lead groups through workshops on intersectional identity engagement and recognizing religious bias. And with one of my professor colleagues, I co-lead the Inter-Belief Floor – a floor in one of our residence halls focused on interfaith engagement. Not exactly skills on the average seminary checklist.

I served a traditional church before I became a campus minister. I loved my year as stated supply to a tiny church in rural Alabama, but my heart has been for college students. I grew up in a non-religious family. My faith in Jesus came to fruition in college – because of a patient and welcoming campus minister, Rev. Dr. Diane Mowrey at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. I was given space to ask questions and grow in fits and starts on my faith journey. I take those memories of encouragement into my ministry at Santa Clara University.

My biggest challenge is ministering to students of other religious traditions. We don’t have a campus rabbi, imam, or holy leader from non-Christian traditions. And yet for me, being a chaplain outside of my comfort zone has rooted me deeper in the grace and compassion of Jesus Christ. How do we preach the gospel always, yet use words only when necessary? How do we show the love of God to someone who has rejected religion? Where do we encourage questions as young people grow into their identities beyond the safe embrace of their family? These weren’t the questions I was taught to answer in seminary – but these are the questions which have given my ministry meaning and great joy.

Now, in the wake of executive orders which seek to ban my students and colleagues from residence in my country, these questions of compassion, of reaching beyond the tradition that roots me, are even more important. When people say Jesus wasn’t a refugee and refuse to imagine an entire religious group as a complex collection of real humans with real hopes and fears, I find my job as the director of religious diversity even more important. Diversity often means division, but it doesn’t have to. Diversity can mean unity without uniformity.

My greatest joy as a university chaplain is that I am surrounded by people who make me think hard on what and why my faith matters. They aren’t shy in their questions about Jesus and his miracles, or how I read and interpret scripture. I miss preaching weekly, but I get the joy of leading a Bible study with seven college students who are excited to be there each week. I don’t get to preside at communion regularly, but I do get to help plan the annual Passover seder with the Jewish Student Union – and learn a lot in the process. I don’t get to take part in youth service trips, but I do get to see my evangelical student group organize and run a weekly worship night with more skill than some new pastors!

Ministry beyond the church walls is challenging – it’s full of unforeseen pitfalls, and unexpected graces. There’s endless paperwork and program assessment, to be sure. But there are colleagues who ask tough questions. There are students who bring their whole selves to their worship. And there is the wonder of the way God is working through each crack and cranny of the human heart.


Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied history and creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Masters of Divinity form Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

Building Bridges, Allowing for Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Don Meeks and Jeff Krehbiel are curating “Can We Talk?”, a modest attempt at an uncommonly gracious conversation among colleagues who differ on matters of conscience. Can we bridge the theological differences that divide us? Can we even talk about them? Can we affirm the best in each other’s theological tradition while honestly confessing the weaknesses of our own? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Roy Howard

There are bridges that need to be repaired. Some are too worn out to depend on; yet everyday we do. They must be replaced sooner rather than later. Of course, I’m not only speaking about the infrastructure of our country’s highways, which we know is in dire need of repair. I am talking about the moral infrastructure of our common life in civil society. The relational fabric of our lives is in deep need to repair, restoration and rebuilding.

The damage of the election cycle is serious and deep. Now that Donald Trump has been elected and Hilary Clinton defeated, there will be a great need to construct new bridges and repair existing ones. The Church that is sustained by the crucified God whose reconciling love for all people was manifest in Jesus Christ can be a witness in these turbulent days, and not by speech alone. Bridge-building is necessary not only in this country but around the world, and it is certainly not the work of Christians alone. The work belongs to all people of faith and good will. One such group is Interfaith Partners for Peace, an organization to which I belong, that brings together Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders as partners for peace in local communities and on behalf of Israelis and Palestinians.

roy-middle-east-groupEarlier this month, I traveled to Israel and Palestine with 23 other pastors and rabbis from across the country who are partners in their local communities. Never have I experienced as much hope for the possibilities of repairing relationships as I did on this trip. I cried frequently in response to what we heard. My partner was Rabbi Greg Harris of Congregation Beth El, with whom I’ve shared mutual ministry for years. The goal of our visit was to listen and learn from Israelis and Palestinians – Jews, Christians and Muslims – as they share their multiple narratives that compete and collide. We especially were seeking examples of people who are building bridges that foster new narratives that allow for hope in the face of despair and paralysis.

It was an extraordinary experience that revealed stark despair, anger and fear countered in stunning ways by people of hope daring to take some risks. I must say, in all candor, no one we met in Israel or the West Bank is optimistic. Yet we met people who are hopeful in the face of the facts. This true hope that runs deeper than sentimental optimism is what gives them courage to do such bold things. It also challenges me to do the same across barriers that are much less daunting.

Here is one example.

Shaul Yudelman is a Jewish teacher and settler who experienced the fear and anger of his local communities as they bury their dead from suicide bombings. He has joined with his enemy, Ai Abu Awwad, a leading Palestinian activist and non-violent freedom fighter, to establish a center in the West Bank near a particularly violent checkpoint, where Palestinian and Israeli families share meals and their stories. They do programs attempting to build relationships with people who both belong to the land that is holy. Neither has abandoned their people’s narrative, but both are trying to build a new story; one of reconciliation between avowed enemies, of friendship and compassion.

I found it an astonishing example of God at work for good. As one Rabbi said, “Tonight I stood in front of a man who identified himself as a terrorist and I looked into his eyes and I acknowledged his humanity and he acknowledged mine and I wrapped my arms around him and I felt guilt. I will go back and preach that story and remind people that every human being is capable of redemption, becoming greater than what they are.”

They are under threat for doing such work. This is hope against all odds.

Jews call this work, tikkum olam, which means to repair the world. This kind of bridge building calls me to do the same.


roy_howard_04_webRoy Howard has served for 16 years as pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian in North Bethesda Maryland. During that time his congregation has traveled to Israel-West Bank with their partner Jewish congregation and participates in regular interfaith activities. His recent book, Walking in Love, describes his 543 mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago. 

Committed to Faith in a Multifaith World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Mobeen Vaid

Few things have found themselves subject to scrutiny more than faith in the modern era.  Faith is often viewed as the cause of civil strife around the globe, and the prescriptions of faith are routinely portrayed as primitive or otherwise incompatible with the dictates of contemporary civil society.  Such portrayals are exacerbated at times by media portrayals that disproportionately cover fringe adherents of faith espousing puritanical fanaticism rather than normative religious practitioners, though I suspect the latter would not make for much of a story on the news (as a Muslim, such portrayals certainly weigh heavy on my mind).

The aforementioned dynamic has resulted in a posture of defensiveness by religionists determined to maintain their faith-based convictions, which has led many dedicated religionists to dogmatism, zealotry, and, at times, isolationism. In its most pernicious form, this defensiveness consumes people, entrenching them in discourses native to their own faith denomination with little regard to the alienation it causes to those in their surroundings.  Characteristics of this attitude include what Brian McLaren refers to as a penchant for dualism (black/white thinking), essentializing the other, and eagerness for denominational one-upping as opposed to serving God.  Please don’t misunderstand my point; it is not that eschatology, theodicy, ontology, and the many other cognate studies of theology lack relevance, but rather that the nascent student or religious practitioner, exposed to these subjects with no context, has little regard for how to translate medieval discourse in a way that is meaningful to his or her congregation, or in a manner that accounts for the socio-cultural context in which its being conveyed.

The classical Muslim jurist and theologian, Nuʿmān ibn Thābit, more commonly known by his teknonym Abu Hanifah, is reported to have once rebuked his son for debating theology with a classmate. His son was shocked by such a rebuke, for Abu Hanifah was renowned for his ability to debate religious issues with his students and fellow scholars, and responded by saying that he found the rebuke hypocritical given Abu Hanifah’s debating posture. Abu Hanifah replied by saying, “when we debate, we aim to discern truth from falsehood. When you debate, you debate for the satisfaction of victory.”

This negotiation – one of an intransigent ideology with the dictates of pluralism – is perhaps the most prevalent pitfall for any religiously committed individual aspiring to study and preach in a multifaith environment. Indeed, anyone born and raised within a solitary religious tradition with little to no exposure to competing views will find it difficult to entertain the potential that other faiths contain within them profound truths. That, although you may not feel the need to subscribe to other faiths, you can respect them deeply is a process of maturation that few undertake. And yet it is this very problem that needs addressing the most; in a multifaith society, when faith is finding itself subject to examination, we need to learn to engage with one another in a meaningful way.

This engagement requires one to not only tolerate, but understand the convictions that lead and inform the decisions of those around us.  If “love thy neighbor” – the Golden Rule and common to all the great faith traditions – was described by Jesus as the greatest commandment in Mark, then it follows that an essential prerequisite to love must be understanding.  How can it be possible to love one whom you know nothing about? About whom you hold suspicion, enmity, and misunderstandings? The objective here again is not consensus, but understanding, and through understanding, love.

I am grateful for the opportunity afforded to me by the NEXT Church team to provide this modest contribution, and pray that it is of benefit to those who read it.  Indeed, God knows best.


 

Mobeen VaidAlong with serving as a Campus Minister for the Muslim Community at George Mason University, Mobeen Vaid works as a community activist in the DC Metro area teaching classes, delivering sermons, and participating in interfaith programming.  Mobeen is currently completing his Masters in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary with a concentration in Muslim-Christian Relations.

How my Muslim Friends Helped Me Become a Stronger Christian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Amy Beth Willis

One evening during my Senior year at Emory University, my friend Nasir, a practicing Shia Muslim, asked me pointedly, “If Jesus was God incarnate, why did he plead with God on the cross, ‘Oh Lord, Why have you forsaken me?” Perplexed, I struggled to respond, recognizing that he had brought up a critical difference between the Christian and Islamic understandings of Jesus. His question prompted a lively, late-night discussion centered around theological differences between Christianity and Islam. Throughout my years at Emory, conversations like these transformed my faith identity in ways that resound today.

At Emory I was blessed to become friends with people from multiple faith traditions different from my own: Catholic, Hindu, Reformed Jew, and Sunni Muslim, to name a few. Through their eyes, I began to not only learn about the traditions and beliefs of other faiths but also to respect and learn from them deeply. I fasted with my Muslim friends during Ramadan and attended Navratri celebrations with my Hindu friends. One weekend, I attended Friday Shabbat at the Hillel center, discussed the Quran on Saturday, and went to a Methodist service on Sunday. I was joyfully immersed in multiple cultures and faiths.

Amy Beth participating in a Muslim Student Association event with her Emory peers

Amy Beth participating in a Muslim Student Association event with her Emory peers

Conversations about faith with friends of other faiths forced me to articulate and understand Christianity in a way that going to church never had. Moreover, I had to grapple with exclusivity of my Christian upbringing’s understanding of the path to God. Jesus’ command to love God and to love neighbor gained new meaning: how could I love my friends and also believe their souls were destined to eternal torment? I was forced to reckon with the purpose of Christianity if not to help others know Christ.

These relationships led me to a Christian faith much stronger and deeper than I had known: a faith rooted in the praxis of working for God’s kingdom of justice and peace on Earth. This faith affirms the sacredness of Jesus as God incarnate, a hope for all people, but is inclusive of all those that seek the divine. This stronger faith also pushes me to seek the divine in other faiths. Now, I could beautifully end a hopeful thought with “Inshallah,” meaning “God willing” in Arabic. Now, I could watch the devotion of fellow students to the Hindu goddess Durga and find beauty and depth in this female vision of God. Now, I could cheerfully sing “When we eat we say Bismillah (In the name of God), when we’re done we say Alhamdullillah (Thanks be to God),” a tune taught to American Muslim children in the same manner I was taught, “God is Great, God is Good, let us thank him for our food.” Engaging in these practices furthered my relationships with my friends that confessed these faiths as their own.

This benevolent and strong Christian faith allows me now to work in an interfaith advocacy context on Capitol Hill at the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness as a Young Adult Volunteer. I can articulate the Christian theological rationale for caring for unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border, while I learn the Jewish rationale. Our voices for political change are stronger together.

If we seek a more just and peaceful world, we must seek understanding between and among faiths. In a more diverse and globalized world, these kind of interfaith and intrafaith relationships are the first steps on a path towards global reconciliation. Misunderstandings fuel wars, death, and destruction around the world. Muslim rebel groups clash with the majority Buddhist government in Thailand; Protestants and Catholic communities are still separated by “Peace” walls in Belfast, Northern Ireland; the state of Israel continues to forcefully push the boundaries of its illegal settlements into the olive farms of Palestinian farmers.

By developing strong relationships with people of other faiths, I am able to birth into this world my understanding of the kingdom of God—people of all faiths joining together as one human family, seeking peace and justice as one. This is the Christian identity I can now proudly claim.


 

Amy Beth WillisAmy Beth Willis is a 2nd year Young Adult Volunteer through the PC(USA) in Washington, D.C., having served her first year in Tucson, AZ. A born and bred Baptist, she hails from Murfreesboro, Tennessee and is passionate about music, education, zumba, and her amazing family and friends.

 

Not That Kind of Christian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 
By Jessica Tate

two faces copyIn a workshop last month, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World, Brian McLaren talked about people leaving Christianity (and other religions) because they refuse to be hostile toward other people and faiths. He lifts up author Anne Rice as a prime example. In 2010, Rice “quit Christianity,” saying that she refuses to be “anti-gay,” “anti-feminist,” “anti-science” and “anti-Democrat.” “Today I quit being a Christian,” Rice wrote. “… It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

There are many examples of the Christians to whom Rice refers. The book banners. The funeral protestors. The Quran burners. Most Presbyterians I know will quickly say, “but I’m not that kind of Christian.” And we aren’t. But those of us that aren’t that kind of Christian aren’t terribly vocal about the kind of Christian we are.

A number of years ago I was part of The Scandal of Particularity — a group of Jews and Christians pulled together by the Institute for Reformed Theology and the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. The group gathered regularly over two years to build relationships and re-examine the central religious concepts of our respective traditions.  The organizers believed that neglect of these central concepts contributes to the loss of the center of religious life — either to religious extremism or benign faith.

The group of thirty that gathered for The Scandal of Particularity was divided equally between Jews and Christians and consisted of a mix of seminarians, scholars, lay people, clergy, educators, and community leaders. I learned — through our conversation, our debate, and our cultivated friendships — that my understanding of faith tradition and my practice of living faith is strengthened as I articulate where my Christian community finds meaning and authority and how we interact with the world as Christians. In other words, the dialogue forced me to name the core convictions of my faith in a diverse group of people, and to do so among people who, while different than me in faith background, are people for whom I care, respect, and admire.

One exciting aspect of this gathering of Jews and Christians (and one that distinguished this group from many other interfaith dialogue groups) is that our time together focused not on what our two traditions have in common, but rather on the particular and distinct claims that are made by Jews and Protestant Christians in six central concepts. Together we explored:

  • the ways divinity is revealed at Sinai and in Christ;
  • the authority of sacred texts;
  • the (competing?) claim to be “the people of God;”
  • the divine presence in Israel and in the person of Christ;
  • the importance of religious space as it is practiced in worship and prayer; and
  • the role of religious people and communities in the public sphere.

Through discussions and wrestling with central concepts of faith together we broke down prejudices, we clarified misunderstandings, and we learned together the particular points of difference around which we could not compromise.  These points, we discovered, are the core convictions of our faith traditions—and joyfully, they often led to respect rather than hostility.

From the earliest gospel writers, Christianity has a troubling history of defining itself against Judaism. Often in our scriptures Jewish leaders like the Pharisees are used as dramatic foils for Jesus. It is not uncommon to hear contemporary Christians say things like, “the Pharisees promoted a system of purity; Jesus promoted a system of compassion.” That is a false dichotomy. Or, as my Jewish friends might say, “If a religious leader is favoring purity over compassion, she’s a bad Jew.”

These conversations and relationships helped me see the importance of Christians defining ourselves around the life-giving grace of God that we experience in Jesus Christ, not by the ways we are distinct from Judaism (or any other group). It also helped me realize the importance of articulating our faith in ways that make sense beyond our “tribe.”

The incredible benefit and gift I’ve taken from the work of this group of Jews and Christians is a clearer understanding of who I am as a Christian. I left this group with a set of core convictions about my own faith tradition that are based on who I am rather than who I’m not:

  • I am a believer who trusts the promises God has made to God’s people throughout history, to Israel and to the church.
  • I believe the scriptures are the authoritative narrative by which we come to know these promises.
  • I trust God’s grace is made known through God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.
  • I believe I am called to gather in community with others to offer thanks and praise to God for creating, redeeming and sustaining this world.
  • I trust the Holy Spirit continues to guide me to work with others for justice and compassion in this world.

As a result of these clarified beliefs, my posture toward those who are different from me has shifted. I need not be intimidated by others’ beliefs. I need not assert my own as better than theirs. I need not worry that diversity is code for “anything goes.” I need not be fearful that respecting different beliefs somehow compromises my own — in fact, I’ve discovered that respecting beliefs of others inspires me to be more committed to my own.

I want to be the kind of Christian whose faith is deep, sure, humble, joyful, and propels me to work in the world for justice, peace, and abundant life.

After quitting Christianity, Anne Rice went on to say, “My faith in Christ is central to my life…. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

To that I say, “amen!,” and I hope to be the kind of follower whose faith —in the ways I articulate it and act on it in the world — doesn’t make people want to quit, but invites others to come and see that this good news I know and try to live is indeed good.


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church.

Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Yena Hwang

I attended the Brian McLaren conference at George Mason University in October, having enjoyed his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road.” I have heard Brian McLaren’s “talks” at various events in the past, so I knew that the conference would be good and that I would benefit from what he had to share and teach. As expected, Brian McLaren’s presentation helped me to gain a deeper insight and helped me to acquire new vocabularies and ideas to engage in more meaningful interfaith dialogues. The structure of the conference, where participants were invited to listen to Brian’s presentation and then invited to engage in more intimate conversations through table discussions, provided a good framework to help me digest the contents being presented.

What I realized through this conference is that we as Christians need to do a better job of understanding our own issues, before pointing our fingers at others’ religious issues. At the beginning of one of our table discussions, each participant was asked to share a personal story involving our encounter with a religion that was different than our own. This is the story I shared.

My encounter was not with a different religion. I was a freshman in college and had joined a campus Christian fellowship geared towards Korean Americans, called Agape Ministry. It was customary to share our joys and concerns at the weekly gathering, where we sang praise songs, listened to someone’s testimony and shared fellowship. That particular night, I had shared a prayer request for my mother, who just learned that her brother, my uncle, had died in Korea. My mother’s grief was compounded by the fact that she had hoped to visit him and share the Gospel with him, but she had missed that opportunity. I shared that it was comforting to be visited by our pastor and that we had a service at home, since my mother could not attend the funeral being held in Korea. At the end of the night, during the free fellowship time, someone came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle…but you know that he is going to hell, right?” I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember how I felt. I felt confused. I felt sad and then angry.

That night, I decided that there was something wrong with our understanding of Agape God, that there had to be more than just orthodox teachings and doctrines heaven and hell and about salvation in general. That was the beginning of my journey into questioning and wrestling with my Christian belief and faith and identity. How do we encourage fellow Christians to engage, struggle, strife, and wrestle with our own Christian issues? Until we come face to face with our own demons, name them and claim them, we will continue to live in a fear-based, “strong and hostile” attitude towards those ideas and beliefs that are foreign to us. Until we work through unpacking our own baggage and sift through what is valuable to keep and what is no longer useful, we will not even be ready to understand that “strong and benevolent” Christian identity is possible.

As someone from our table shared, we need to be the best Christian that we can be–the kind of Christian who puts into action/practice the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter what that neighbor’s religious beliefs are and most certainly, no matter what that neighbor may look or sound like. May it begin with me. May it be so. Amen.


 Yena-HwangYena Hwang is the Associate Pastor of Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Yena was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States with her parents when she as 11 years old. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Yena is married to Rick Choi and together, they are parents to two children, Justin and Nathan.