Committee seeks tools to help congregations engage in interfaith relationships
In Indianapolis, Presbyterians have joined with Jews, Muslims, and other Christians to build houses for homeless people and to combat hunger.
In New York City, Jews and Presbyterians have hosted book studies reflecting on different sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
In Lithonia, Georgia, African American Presbyterians are listening to and learning from leaders of the Nation of Islam and African traditional religions.
These examples, shared at a meeting of the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) in Louisville, January 20–22, highlight the increasingly vital role of interfaith activities in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.
“If we have a future as a church, forming interfaith relationships is a significant part of that future,” said the Reverend Dr. Mark Lomax, pastor of First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, who spoke to the committee via Skype about his congregation’s interreligious involvement.
Meeting planners invited Lomax and other leaders of local interfaith efforts to tell about their experiences. Hearing from congregations is part of a process kicked off in 2014 by the 221st General Assembly (2014)’s approval of The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a document affirming the importance of relationships with people of other faiths.
“For the past two years, GACEIR has been raising the question, ‘How do we help the church live into this?’” says the Reverend Robina Winbush, director for ecumenical relations in the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly.
In previous meetings the committee has focused on interfaith work in mid councils and theological institutions. To help congregations engage with the Interreligious Stance, planners of GACEIR’s January meeting looked for churches with a long history of interfaith involvement.
“We decided to bring in people who are actually doing the work,” said planning team member the Reverend Amantha Barbee, pastor of Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She said the committee hopes to offer models, resources, and other tools to empower congregations.
To tell about interfaith work in Indianapolis, GACEIR invited the Reverend Brian Shivers, associate pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, and Imam Mikal Saahir of Nur-Allah Islamic Center. Both have been involved in the city’s Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC).
Saahir called the 9/11 attacks “a watershed moment for interfaith relations.” To help unify city residents, CIC put together a speakers’ bureau. Shivers described it as “a living resource” made up of people who could visit congregations and other groups and “talk about the importance of interfaith work from a wide variety of religious perspectives.”
Fear is the biggest barrier to interfaith relations, Shivers said. People wonder, “If I get involved in interfaith work, do I have to give up what I believe?”
Lomax agreed. He said that interfaith discussions hosted by his Atlanta-area congregation often pack the sanctuary, drawing visitors from the community who are interested in the conversation. Yet some members have left because they “felt we weren’t Christian anymore.” And the interfaith events have received little affirmation from nearby congregations.
“There may be suspicion of people who are open to other traditions,” he said. “When you begin to welcome people of other faiths and engage them at a deeper level, there’s some concern about whether they will somehow infect you.”
To counter such fears, Shivers tells members of his congregation: “Interfaith work asks you to bring to it the best of who you are as a Christian.” Conversations with people of other religious traditions, he adds, often lead to deeper insights about one’s own faith.
Saahir, a convert to Islam whose grandmother was Presbyterian, pointed out that most people are already living in interfaith relationships—with family members, co-workers, and friends. But they need to learn how to talk about their religious differences in a non-threatening way.
The Reverend Alistair Drummond, pastor of West End Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, told GACEIR about the evolving relationship between his 85-member church and a Jewish congregation that shares its building. The biggest challenge has been to build a relationship of trust between the two congregations, he said.
But what “began as a business relationship has developed into more than that,” he says. He describes it as “a spiritual friendship” that is healing wounds caused by anti-semitism and racism.
Sharing a building has led to shared worship experiences. After the shooting in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, the Jewish congregation invited their Presbyterian neighbors to attend their Friday evening service “to show solidarity” in the face of evil.
The congregations also have engaged in a series of book studies reflecting on different sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
GACEIR members encouraged their invited guests to suggest resources for engaging congregations in interfaith work.
Drummond said he appreciated the “action steps” included in the Interreligious Stance document because they suggest concrete ways Presbyterians can develop relationships with people of other faiths. Adding more action steps would strengthen the document, he said.
One thing the document does not address, he noted, is “the experience of having multiple religious identities”—the person who identifies as both Buddhist and Christian, for example. Young adults, in particular, often draw on spiritual insights and practices from a variety of religions.
Shivers, who leads youth ministry at Second Presbyterian Church, said teens often describe their faith struggle something like this: “If my faith doesn’t have anything good to say about something beautiful that I’ve learned from another tradition, then I may dismiss the faith of my ancestors.”
GACEIR planning team member Dianna Wright, a Christian educator on the staff of Salem Presbytery, described The Interreligious Stance as “a beginning” and “a working document.”
The paper, she said, “gives form and identity to our commitment to engage more faithfully with our brothers and sisters of other faiths as we seek to make a difference in the world.”