Monday, September 19, 2011

Controversy of Buildings

In the last year or two, much media attention has been given to the controversy of new mosques being built in the United States, particularly one near Ground Zero in New York. Recently, Pew Research released information about mosque controversies in the country here.

It is not uncommon in church to hear that church is not a building, but rather a group of people who are learning to worship, serve and love God together.

Yet the building must signify something important for church goers and those that practice any faith, as it is the location where that education, worship, serving and loving happen. It is where a gathering of people with common beliefs meet, connect, pray, and likely give business to centers and restaurants nearby. That is to say, the presence of a building where faithful people gather has the implication that the same people are gathering in that neighborhood, living there, volunteering there, buying food or engaging in activities there just outside of that place of worship. This might sound highly beneficial to a given neighborhood, but it is not news to anyone that the opposite perception is prevalent, especially when it comes to mosques.

It is not the building that makes others feel fearful. It is not the additional traffic that induces fear, though it is notably a more common protest than feeling afraid, as indicated by Pew. When the neighbors' fear does affect the decision to add a mosque or other place of worship, it is fear of the unknown - unknown beliefs, unknown people, unknown culture.

What is the answer to this fear? Is it better not to invite such buildings into areas with people unwilling or unprepared to welcome a new group of faithful people to their neighborhood, or is it more worthwhile for that group of people to join the neighborhood and allow people's fears to be replaced by understanding over time, regardless of how bumpy or lengthy the road may be?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Telling Stories

My local Austin interfaith group recently got together and discussed our religious upbringings. Initially, this topic didn't seem that different from other ones we've discussed. Our lenses would inevitably be distinct from one another; the way we've navigated relationships with friends and parents and other influences would have common elements, yet differing sorts of struggles. This is what I look forward to before all of our meetings, regardless of what we're discussing.

Yet this topic brought out something I didn't think to expect: narratives. Instead of chatting back and forth about our opinions on this or that theological topic, we found that discussing our religious upbringings lent itself directly to storytelling. We basically each took one long turn and had the equivalent of follow-up questions along the way. While it was less conversational in tone, it provided a uniquely connecting effect as we learned where we each came from and how that influenced where we are with "God stuff" today.

I encourage you in your own interfaith contexts to stop to include formats of discussion that lend themselves to such storytelling here and there. It will enrich theological discussions in the future, as your understanding of one another will be inevitably more nuanced!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Rightly Extreme Faith or Extremism?

In seminary, I learned that expressing one’s faith in a dedicated manner may result in others’ hurt. Beliefs inform practices that can conflict with one another within a tradition, and resulting actions can be offensive and even painful to those that disagree with another's interpretation of Scripture. This can create disillusionment over how to define one’s own tradition when there are so many variations of theology and resulting praxis under one religious umbrella. If a person claims to be a Christian, and says their beliefs and actions are Christian, how does one definitively name heresy from orthodoxy?

Protestantism chooses a more confounding road in this respect than Catholicism or Mormonism, with less than a standardized structure to lean on here. But for all Christians, in looking to the church fathers and the process of assembling creeds like that of Nicaea, we find that discerning the parameters of a tradition can be a painful process that inevitably includes this eventuality: labeling those who perceive themselves as dedicated, faithful leaders as heretics.

In seminary, I thankfully had nothing but positive experiences in navigating this complex framework with my classmates. Some topics are easier to tackle than others. Typically (read: never ever) did my seminary arguments result in plots to kill one another or anyone else for that matter. It was our dedication to our faith that precluded murder from our to-do list. Thus, when I find countless news reports and history lessons attaching heinous acts (whose definition I realize may also be debated, but for now, let's deem it as intentionally harming unsuspecting, innocent people) to a faith tradition, it boggles my mind. Shouldn't we all be able to agree that their acts are not an accurate representation of that tradition? Is that what we imply when we say "extremist"? Is this how we acknowledge that there is a whole group of people hiding out somewhere that agrees that this crime is attached to a major religion's tenants, and does their strength in even modest numbers here preclude the rest of us from presuming obvious heresy?

Is this simply an excruciating, almost unbearable aspect of my own Protestant acceptance of a lack of standardized, hierarchical governance (Feel free have a field day with this, Catholics and Mormons)? Self-perceived "right praxis" of a tradition has no worldwide (or even city, state or nationwide) Protestant appointed police. Clearly this could be a whole other post on my beliefs about the nature of God's guidance through this. More pertinently for this post, Protestants are not alone in being misrepresented and misperceived by hateful acts. In fact, in modern times in the Western world, we have suffered this less than other traditions like Islam.

Is this struggle then an excruciating aspect of being an extremely religious person in a world where extremists fly the same flag and have a louder media microphone?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Intersections of Interfaith

I am always captivated the intersection between my work as a pastor and interfaith dialogue. Sometimes people ask me how I see the connection between the two when I discuss wanting to integrate interfaith dialogue into local church life.

It seems to be a connection that finds me rather than vice versa.

Recently I have found myself in multiple conversations with Christians who found they no longer desire to go to churches that cannot engage with other faiths, due to personal experiences they've had. Or in another case, some congregants heard me use an illustration in a sermon involving my Jewish friends and were compelled by my friends' insights. This piqued their interest in dialogue for the first time, and they approached me to ask how to join my local interfaith group. This happened enough times that I began to worry that the Christians representation would grow disproportionate among our lively group's members. What a pleasant problem to have!

As a minister or layperson, Christian or faithful member of another tradition, have you encountered the intersection of congregational life and interfaith dialogue? What has that looked like for you?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Another Interfaith Member's Lens

Another Austin interfaith group member reflect on her first experience with an interfaith dialogue group:

"I have really enjoyed this interfaith group. It's an opportunity to talk with my friends about my faith in a very casual, open, friendly, and fun environment. I love it! And this group has also been a key instrument in helping me learn how to listen to others. It's been wonderful."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Interfaith Group Reflections

I recently asked my Austin interfaith group to reflect on their participation in their 1st interfaith group. Here is a response from one of the members. Are there parts of this reflection that resonate with you or appeal to you?

What are the upsides and the challenges?

An upside to the group is that we are all girls. It would be great if gender did not interfere with group discussions but I can see how talking about something, like religion, and how personal it can be could, that gender interfere with the group dynamics. However, for some topics it would be interesting to get the male perspective. Fortunately, our group has not had any major conflicts other than scheduling conflicts. I do wish to see more individuals from other religions join the group because I would like to learn about their religions as well.

What do you find most valuable about the group?

At first I was a bit hesitant to join the interfaith group because I don’t consider myself a very religious person and was afraid that others may try to push their religious beliefs onto me or other group members. I was delighted to find that was not the case. I’ve been able to learn about different religions and their practices in a causal yet intellectually stimulating way. The group’s ability to discuss various religions, values, morals, and beliefs in an open manner without judgment is inspiring. It’s nice to know that even though there are a lot of religious conflicts, misrepresentations, and misunderstandings in the world that our group is able to join together and openly discuss these issues with respect for one another.

What are your hopes for the group as we continue to grow together and meet?

We have attended events, watched movies, and discussed cultural and religious beliefs. I have enjoyed looking at the religions’ similarities and differences. The cultural activities are the meetings that I find most enjoyable. It is interesting to see how people can misinterpret someone’s behaviors as something rooted in their religion when really it turns up being a cultural belief, plus there is always good food!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

How Shall We Build Safe Spaces for Lay Dialogue?

While in seminary, I facilitated an interfaith house group in Los Angeles twice a month. It mainly involved seminarians of different traditions. We came together to discuss various theological topics. I set an agenda and the time was organic but focused. We shared religious holidays with one another sometimes, but discussion was unquestionably our mainstay.

When I arrived in Austin, Texas, fresh out of seminary, I set out to build another house group. At first, the group involved a few of us who were accustomed to discussing our faith with other traditions. As the group grew and now includes people new to dialogue, I have noticed the group’s gravitation toward experiences rather than pure discussion. Films and events have covered most of our meetings for the past few months, with intriguing cultural conversations in between, such as discussing the topic of the way our traditions are portraying in American mainstream media.

Now that it has been a few months, there seems to be a greater pull toward discussion topics. I am curious what my fellow house group members would say about this, but my perception is that there were enough members who were new to dialogue that those common experiences allowed for feeling out the group as an increasingly safer space. Now it seems the group is ready for more discussion with continued accompanying experiences. I am both excited and sense the group is ready for this as engaging and non-threatening! This is the type of space that allows for God’s presence and transformation of all present in the conversation.

I am curious to see if, in hindsight, this group’s preference of initial common experiences will affect the way I facilitate dialogues when piecing non-clergy groups together to try their hands at dialogue for the first time. Should common experiences serve as an orientation into eventual theological dialogue, or is it different with every group? I look forward to learning about this over time through further experiences.