I attended Catholic school for the first three years of elementary school. I appreciated Mass, even though the wafer and the cup were denied to me. I knew that I was not Catholic. The church I attended worshipped Jesus, too, but there the cross was empty and pictures of a him bloody and crucified were jettisoned for the long-haired, Fabio-like, very-much-alive versions of the Savior.
Religious diversity for me consisted of Catholic and Protestant. Then, after moving to the Southern United States, diversity was Presbyterian and Baptist with a few Methodists thrown in for good measure. Interfaith encounters remained remote until (I am a bit embarrassed to admit) graduate school in Philadelphia. There in the religious studies department I met female rabbis, practicing Muslims, a brilliant member of the Latter Day Saints and a Buddhist undergraduate who told me that believing in God complicated matters greatly. Discussions around the lunch table and in the classroom proved rich — and difficult, too. Neither common beliefs nor common vocabulary could be assumed. These encounters pushed me to articulate my own tradition and honed my beliefs in the process. These relationships wore down assumptions I didn’t know I held.
Years later, I found myself sitting on the pool deck at my daughter’s swim team practice, making conversation with another mother. At one point she asked me if I worked outside the home. “Yes,” I said. “I am a pastor.” Her confusion registered immediately. I went on to say I was a minister at a small church about 30 minutes away. “But what do you do?” she asked, still puzzled. “I visit people in the hospital. I preach and lead worship.” There was a lengthy pause and she asked, “And they pay you for this?”
I soon discovered that she was new to the United States, having recently moved from India. She and her family were Hindu. The concept of a priest had resonance, but not pastor or minister. We spent many hours poolside and I learned about her faith and culture. She came to understand better not only my job, but my faith, too.
Today I am part of an interfaith group of religious leaders that meets once a month. We are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian, Muslim, Baha’i and more. We come together because our various faith traditions each call us to make our shared community better for everyone. The summer of hate in Charlottesville, Virginia, strengthened our resolve to be united, even as standing united strengthened our relationships. This is not to say that our coming together or staying together is without challenges and frustration. We do not share the same beliefs, nor do we have the same vocabulary. And yet, whenever we gather, there is a sense of the divine — what I would name the Holy Spirit.
We open and close our time with prayer and I am struck by the beauty of those moments. Christians are mindful of the diversity in the room, but when a pastor ends with “in Jesus’ name” no one hesitates to say “amen.” The rabbi uses images of creation and compassion that are common to everyone, and yet, not infrequently, we close by singing a song in Hebrew. Sometimes there is silence, other times people speak aloud petitions or praise. Occasionally, we hold hands. Always, I leave having seen the multifaceted grandeur of God in the faces and the voices of people committed to making our community better. I leave, too, with a deep sense that the challenges and the difficulties, the frustrations and, yes, the disagreements are far outweighed by the gift of recognizing that God is so much bigger than our personal assumptions, vocabularies or even beliefs.
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, my Lord and Savior and the redeemer of the world. That remains unwavering for me and when I am in relationship with those of different faiths, I am better able to articulate what that means and why I believe it matters. My faith, rather than being diminished, is honed and enhanced when I join my friends of other religions. More importantly, all of our witnesses to a world filled with far too much hate and division are magnified when we come together and demonstrate God’s love. And that is priceless.
Grace and peace,