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Public Ministry in Multi-Faith Contexts: What It Is Not, What It Is and What It Requires of Religious Leaders


[1] In the previous article, “Are we really a public church? Ministry in a Multi-Faith North America,” I made the case that other religious communities make up the public in which we do ministry. To be a public church requires engagement not only with individuals or families of other faith traditions but religious communities who also have a stake in the public. I argued that to do Christian ministry today requires one to have an awareness of, encounter with, and sensitivity to other religious communities that are often under-represented or victimized by a dominant culture. In this subsequent article I address what public ministry in multi-faith contexts is not, what it is and what it requires of religious leaders. In doing so, I will provide examples from my experiences in Muslim-Christian engagement.[*]

 

What public multi-faith ministry is not

 

[2] A public multi-faith ministry will need to confront many assumptions and apprehensions. Most people are wary of ‘the other’ and worried about feeling uncomfortable. Thus, I would like briefly to describe some of the common concerns and fears about interfaith engagement and ministry in multi-faith contexts: what it is NOT and what it IS.

 

 

·         It is NOT about a race to a common denominator or a religious view upon which all can agree.

[3] There is often an assumption that interfaith activities require us to water down our faiths so that we can all agree upon something. Quite the contrary! Ministry in multi-faith contexts requires that we actually are conversant and comfortable with our own faith story.[1] In fact, dumbing down our faith simply to avoid potential perceived conflicts is not fair to those with whom we seek to work. It does not honor them. It does not honor us. My experience among my Muslim colleagues and students is that they wish me to express my sincere Christian identity. They expect nothing less. Moreover, they expect to be received in the same manner. The point of being a leader in multi-faith contexts is precisely to develop skills of sensitivity in giving voice and ear to different faith claims that are honored without letting those differences become a hindrance to engagement and positive relationships. This has practical implications when it comes to public prayers and gatherings. It takes maturity, sensitivity and confidence not to change what we say, but how we say it and when.

[4] Congregations already engage in many kinds of ministry where their partners might be of another denomination or tradition, “nominally” Christian, or even secular. We usually do not seem offended by their presence or feel that we must state our Christian convictions before we engage in the activity. For example, AA groups can be found in most churches, but AA groups are explicitly open to members of different religious traditions or no tradition. Many congregations receive government funding for after school programs, which must provide a secular-based curriculum and activities, even though the events might be on church property. We understand that providing space and working with such organizations is a public good. Likewise, there is no reason that such strategic work cannot be done between Lutheran congregations and Muslim communities even when there are doctrinal differences.

 

·         It is NOT only about formal theological dialogue

[5] It is frequently assumed that to engage with people of other faiths that the primary activity must be a formal theological dialogue. When different traditions come together, the professional religious leaders are often asked to represent their tradition and even defend it. I remember attending such dialogues in the 1980s and 1990s. Here the “talking heads” would debate or discuss theological topics. While theological dialogue does have its place, it should not be the primary form of public multi-faith engagement.

[6] Jane Smith, in her book Muslims, Christians, and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue, reviews at least eight different ways that Muslims and Christians can get together.[2]  Of the eight different models, which includes the formal theological dialogue mentioned above, she concluded that the most effective model between communities are “Get to Know You” meetings, where the basics of traditions or holidays and food can be shared. Other models include, “Dialogue about Ritual” where concepts of fasting or prayer, or other worship practices are shared (especially in embodied worship spaces); and “Dialogue about Spirituality” where individuals share the roles that spiritual practices or habits play in their lives. Finally, one model that has recently become popular is a “Cooperative Model,” where communities come together to work for some common community project. I remember back in the 1990’s when the Minneapolis Council of Churches began working with several Muslim communities in the Twin Cities to collect warm clothing for displaced persons and refugees of the Bosnian civil war. The project was so effective that it naturally spawned further activities between Muslims and Christians who wanted to know more about each other in light of their common interests to “promote the good” [an Islamic virtue].[3] Personally, the most effective Christian-Muslim gathering I have ever witnessed has occurred between women’s groups, where the common bond of womanhood, family, and parenting cut across religious divides.

 

·         It is NOT about defending our whole faith tradition

[7] The above discussion about theological dialogue has unfortunately prompted assumptions that a shallow understanding of 1 Peter 3:15 requires us to have our doctrinal ducks in a row. However, most of us go about our daily lives making decisions and responding to the world around us often without an explicit sense of which Bible verse supports what we are doing, or what Jesus would do (WWJD). Rather, we carry our faith with us and often have the freedom to later reflect on how our faith has developed, grown or been challenged in any given moment or stage of our life, which we might then share.[4]

[8] Being comfortable with our own faith story is not the same as being knowledgeable about our doctrine. The ELCA’s Book of Faith initiative was begun explicitly to help people share their own understanding of the Bible, rather than an exploration of history or doctrine.[5] This has helped us understand that our stories matter. When we share our faith stories, we speak out of our own experience. Ultimately, questions about our beliefs provide further opportunity to reflect and clarify what we actually do believe. My Muslim friend may ask me what it implies that God is the Father. It is a good question! I might be prompted to return home and crack open Luther’s Small Catechism, where in Luther’s explanation to the first article of the Creed, I might reflect on how I understand that God truly provides daily life out of “divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” The interfaith exchange can lead not just to a theological one-ups-man-ship, but to an opportunity for deeper understanding of one’s own faith.

[9] Unfortunately, however, expecting people to speak for their whole tradition is something that I have often experienced when it comes to Muslim guests invited to speak to congregations. Quite frequently, the assembly expects the Muslim guest to defend or explain the whole Islamic tradition. Unfortunately, when the guest begins to speak from their own story, which may not resemble the expected answer, the examiner becomes frustrated that the Muslim guest is evading the question. I once invited a Muslim sociologist to come in and talk about the sociological diversity of Muslim communities. She happened to be wearing a hijab. When questioned about the theological meaning of the scarf, my colleague paused and said, “Well, I don’t know the religious reasons from the tradition. I just know that I feel as if I am performing my religious duty when I wear it.” The audience was not satisfied. As my colleague Paul Rajashaker reminds us, “Inter-religious dialogue and engagement is primarily between people who embody different faiths and not between the doctrinal beliefs to which they subscribe.”[6]

 

·         It is NOT about finding the most convenient community that mirrors our own

[10] While it is laudable to want to quickly develop relationships with other faith communities, it is sometimes a mistake simply to reach out and begin relationships with the most convenient partners. A pastor may meet an Imam at an interfaith event and exchange contact information. The pastor becomes so excited about helping their congregation develop relationships with Muslims that they don’t think through some of the potential pitfalls or challenges of developing the relationship within their ministry context.[7] For example, I was once invited to a clergy association that was trying to reach out and include the Muslim community. This particular clergy association was made up of Catholic priests, Protestant pastors, and Jewish rabbis in an affluent part of the city. They had proven to be a very effective ecumenical and interfaith presence. However, in their attempt to include Muslims, they had not recognized that the Muslim communities in the area were predominantly African-American or immigrants from several Caribbean islands. The racial, economic, and legal statuses of these communities were very different from those of their Abrahamic cousins. To begin building relationships would require addressing not only theological differences, but very real racial and economic ones. How might the Guyanese Muslim immigrant feel walking onto the campus of an all-white Lutheran Church in an affluent all white part of town?

[11] We should also not expect to find another community with whom we will be compatible in all aspects of our social, political, or religious expressions. That too does not honor us, the other, or our public. Differences are real, but they can provide opportunities that stretch us and help us grow. For example, a congregation might be very involved with the ELCA “Peace Not Walls” campaign,[8] and finds a local Muslim community for whom Palestinian rights is also an important religious issue. The two communities might come together for important joint peace and justice work. However, that Muslim community might have different views on same-sex marriage. Social and religious differences should not surprise us. Developing positive relationships in multi-faith contexts requires mature leaders who can help communities navigate difference and even learn to embrace it without being so offended that the relationship does not even have a chance to start.

 

Public multi-faith ministry IS…

[12] This leads us finally into what public multi-faith ministry is and what it requires of religious leaders. The “Guidelines” of the World Council of Churches for dialogue among different faith traditions proposes “repentance,” “humility,” “joy,” and “integrity” as the spirit with which Christians should reflect on our relationships with people of other faiths.[9] Eboo Patel also lists a variety of different skill sets for leaders in multi-faith contexts. These are all helpful. However, here I would suggest that Christian public ministry in multi-faith contexts also requires “intentionality,” “maturity,” “patience,” and the practice of being “guest-oriented.”

 

·         Intentionality

[13] Intercommunal interfaith relations do not simply happen. They do not just spontaneously spring up. Yes, individual interfaith relationships develop all of the time, but the engagement of two or more communities does not. The 2008 Virginia Theological Seminary study mentioned in the my previous article noted that among 4,000 Episcopal priests who took part in the study, 90% of those who organized an educational opportunity about another religion, or engaged in some form of interreligious activity in their parishes, had been exposed to different religious traditions during their ministerial training. Those priests that had little or no interfaith exposure felt unprepared to assist their parish in such initiatives. In other words, “an Episcopal church leader’s education in other faiths is almost a pre-requisite for education in our parishes about other religions.”[10] We certainly do not mean to imply that these important initiatives should be only clergy led. There are myriad opportunities for such training for lay and professional religious leaders. The point is that engagement in interfaith relationships takes intentional leadership.

 

·         Maturity

[14] The shifting landscape of religion, culture, and politics has created a tumultuous atmosphere in the United States that has become toxic. Naturally, people fear these issues being brought into the congregation and sometimes might become angry when they perceive them to be unjustly “dragged into the pulpit.” Congregations need mature leaders who can navigate these minefields while maintaining integrity and positively influencing “the emotional field” of their community.[11] One of these contentious topics in our national life, of course, has been the image of Islam and Muslims. Islamophobia lurks under the surface of many congregations. As Jonathan E. Brockopp reminds us, any form of inter-religious work raises “uncomfortable questions,” and people fear “negative consequences” for their community that they dearly love.[12] These questions might be centered around the thorny theological issues that may be raised in any encounter with a person of another faith, or simply the fear of Muslims, or the fear of the unknown. Whatever they might be, these concerns are real and should be acknowledged.

[15] Mature leaders will be faced with the anxiety, fear, and even anger of members within their community when attempting to engage with Muslim communities. However, by explicitly naming the fears, anxieties, or anger, and then recognizing Muslims as individuals rather than as representatives of an image or stereotype, congregations can grow in their own maturity.  They might end up learning more about their own faith and find courage and joy in reaching out beyond their own community to work for the common good.

 

·         Patience

[16] Naturally, such growth takes time. We all mature spiritually, mentally or emotionally at a different rate. This needs to be respected. Many a multi-faith initiative has gone astray when a recent participant in an event becomes excited and tries to convince their congregation of the importance of such work, only to fall into any number of “traps” that doom the interfaith communal relationship from the beginning. Good will is important, but developing interfaith communal engagement takes time and patience.

[17] There is the simple fact that religious communities exist first and foremost around their own core beliefs and activities, primarily worship. Religious leaders are busy with these regular duties and responsibilities. If a religious leader is not full-time, relationships can take even longer to develop. Recent studies show that only 44% of American Muslim communities have a full-time compensated Imam. The rest have either part-time Imams or rely on “lay” volunteer leadership.[13] Trying to organize activities with working professionals who share the responsibilities of leadership in a voluntary religious community provides unique challenges to congregations that are used to a full or half-time theologically trained religious professional or a church office staff that organizes congregational activities.

[18] In her book, Muslims, Christians and the Challenge of Inter-faith Dialogue, Jane Smith lays out a number of challenges when attempting to plan activities between Muslim and Christian communities. These issues can quickly sabotage good intentions. First, there is a tendency to bring international politics into an activity. The global intrudes on the local. A gathering about an after-school program might quickly turn into a shouting match about Israel/Palestine. Second, while Lutheran congregations are now part of a dominant cultural heritage of American religious life, this is something very diverse Muslim communities are still learning about. The “playing field is not level.” Third, finding the appropriate partners or speakers takes time and care. Including persons of various genders, ethnicities, races, or economic levels is difficult but necessary. White Lutheran congregations often assume that Muslims are of Arab descent, when a local mosque might be African American, or African. They may be Shi’a or Ahmadiyya. Questions about who will speak for whom is important. Fourth, because Lutheran congregations are used to particular ways of functioning as part of institutions or established communities, “redressing the balance” so that the Muslim community is a full partner in the activities requires careful planning. Fifth, there may be lurking suspicions about the “hidden agenda” of others. The fear of proselytism, and more recently the very real fear of physical harm by outsiders, unfortunately, is all too real. Muslim communities around the country have been faced with a rise in criminal and violent attacks against them. Finally, there is the question of who is actually inviting whom? In my experience, Lutheran congregations can be wonderful places of hospitality. However, it is sometimes easier to be the host than the guest.[14]

 

·         Being Guest-oriented[15]

[19] Congregations that wish to engage with Muslim communities must learn to let go of the need to be the host of the relationship and learn to be a guest. This means developing sensitivities and respect for Islamic prayer times and holidays (that rotate according a lunar cycle), and worship practices (taking off shoes, covering heads, segregating males and females for public prayer). It also means learning to be open to the variety of ways that different Muslim communities organize themselves and embody their faith life. Just as not all Lutherans bring “green jello salad” to the “potluck,” or eat Lutefisk or Sauerkraut, not all Muslim communities commemorate their own cycles of life in the same ways. Some may argue that being guest-oriented does not “level the playing field” at all. However, we must remember that white Lutheran congregations are now part of a dominant culture that exercises privilege, whether we feel it or not. Giving up control in decisions is not only a good social opportunity to “redress the balance,” it is a spiritual exercise. Such experiences of being guests might just prompt us to think about how our community might respond if a Muslim family shows up one Sunday morning to share greetings, and how they might be received by ushers or greeters. This can be the living out of a Theology of the Cross where we seek to experience Christ among those who are often under-represented or victimized by a dominant culture, or other Theologies of Glory that feed off of our current climate of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

[20] Lutherans have a variety of sources at their disposal as a public church in a multi-faith North America, especially in the area of Christian-Muslim Relations. The ELCA Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Muslim Relations has developed resources on the ELCA website,[16] and most recently published Engaging Others, Knowing Ourselves in 2016. Rostered leaders and congregations need not re-invent the wheel, or feel they are alone when taking seriously their role in doing ministry as a public church in multi-faith contexts. What is clear is that Muslim communities are part of our public and we just might be surprised how much our interests intersect.

 

David D. Grafton is the Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Duncan Black Macdonald Center, Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut

 



[*] Readers may find it valuable to refer to the previous article prior to reading this one.



[1] Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), 120.

 

[2] Jane Idleman Smith, Muslims, Christians, and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 64-82.

 

[3] See also Carol Schersten LaHurd, ‘Guidelines for Interacting in the Real World,’ in Engaging Others: Knowing Ourselves (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016), 48-81.

[4] See, for example, J. H. Peace, O. N. Rose and G. Mobley, eds., My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012).

 

[5] See http://www.bookoffaith.org/dwelling.html [accessed 2 February 2018].

 

[6] J. Paul Rajashekar, ‘Our God and Their God: a relational theology of religious plurality,’ LaHurd, 128.

[7] See Smith, 83-100.

 

[9] Paragraph 21.

 

[10] David T. Gortner, Katherine Wood, and J. Barney Hawkins IV, “Faithful Christians, Faithful Neighbors: How do Episcopal parishes relate to other faiths – especially Islam?” Virginia Theological Seminary Journal (December 2013), 57–66.

 

[11] Peter L. Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006), 65.

 

[12] Johnathan E. Bockropp, ‘Exploring the Uncomfortable Questions,’ in LaHurd, 88.

 

[13] Ihsan Bagby, The American Mosque, Report #2: Activities, Administration and Vitality of the American Mosque, 2011 (http://www.hartfordinstitute.org/The-American-Mosque-Report-2.pdf) [accessed 6 February 2018].

 

[14] Smith, 82-119.

 

[15] Here I am indebted to conversations with and the work of my colleague J. Paul Rajashekar.

 

[16] See http://www.elca.org/Faith/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Inter-Religious-Relations/Muslim-Relations.


Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​




© May/June 2018
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 18, Issue 3