When commentators, religious or not, discuss the cities in the U.S. that are most faithful, New York City is not among them. They talk about our inhabitants and how ruthless they are; they talk about our restaurants and how good they are; they talk about our streets and how dirty and crowded they are; but they don’t talk about how much New Yorkers love God/Allah/Yawheh/etc.
This is actually surprising seeing as 70% of New Yorkers claim to be affiliated with a religious congregation compared to the national average of 50%. Encouraging as these statistics are, they also mean that New Yorkers must do their due diligence and pay attention to the beautifully diverse world around them. As a Presbyterian pastor in NYC, I have had the honor of participating in many multifaith discussions, and I learn something new every time. One demographic that can’t get enough of these types of engagements is our 20- and 30-somethings. They live and breathe the wide range of theological nuances at work, at the bars, at home, everywhere. Their appetite to learn about the Other is insatiable. Where they struggle is in how to truly understand the Other on their terms.
In an effort to feed this desire, I invited a local imam to talk about his unique identity as a Muslim. I’ll be honest. His presentation was… surprising. I was expecting something along the lines of an Islam 101 course: clear, succinct points about how Islam was similar to and different from Christianity. Instead, I got a non-linear, lyrical dance of sorts. When asked questions about everything from judgment to prayer, the Imam responded with answers that were difficult to locate and pinpoint. I ignorantly assumed he just didn’t have a good response to our questions.
Boy was I wrong.
Throughout college and seminary, I learned how the Enlightenment brought religion and Christianity in particular, together with reason. While this move empowered the Church to embrace formerly “evil” things like science, it also conditioned us to demand a rational and linear explanation for all things divine. This tireless need for the rational was glaringly evident in the questions we lobbed at our patient guest. And with each answer, the Imam didn’t pander to our needs, and I am really glad he didn’t.
In addition to holding different beliefs and teachings, I witnessed a different way of believing and being in my Muslim brother. He was a poet. His “answers” to our “questions” flowed with passionate exclamations and Quranic quotations. Once I stopped expecting him to answer the questions the way I wanted him to, I started to actually listen. And it was beautiful. Every word that came out of his mouth was worship. His entire presentation, his entire being was one fluid song of praise.
When I told a family friend I was going to study comparative religions in college, she responded, “If you play with dirt, you’re going to get dirty.” If we, as Christians, abide by that rule, the only result would be a more shallow faith in our own god and a lack of appreciation for other gods. On that holy Sunday, an imam showed me, a pastor, what true worship can look like and in turn, deepened my own spiritual devotion. If that makes me dirty, then I don’t want to be clean.
The Rev. Charlene Han Powell is currently the Associate Pastor for Christian Education at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. She oversees Adult Education, Young Adult Ministries, and Family Ministries at this historic Manhattan church.