The opportunity to practice the inclusivity of Jesus

"As rural people and leaders, we have both an opportunity and an obligation to both witness and testify to Jesus’ inclusive ministry," writes Phillip Blackburn. 

The sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, Lincoln, Illinois.

It was 2005, and the Iraq War was in full swing. In the small midwestern community where I lived and ministered, this also meant that jingoism – extreme patriotism – and anti-Islamic sentiment were high.

In response, I decided to have a guest speaker from a local mosque come to First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Illinois, and talk about his faith. In order to achieve this, I had to go to the nearby city of Bloomington, Illinois, make a cold call to an imam, and then meet with the man he recommended. The man came to the church and spoke, along with his wife, who made traditional Middle Eastern desserts, and the evening went well. My point here is not to celebrate the event itself but to point out what was entailed in bringing a person from another faith to my congregation at all.

If you have been reading my Outlook columns on small church ministry, you might recall that to discuss one rural place in America is to discuss one rural place. Rural places are incredibly diverse in their economies, demographics and characteristics. There are some, I am sure, that are home to vibrant Islamic centers, Buddhist temples, synagogues, or any number of diverse worshiping communities.

In my experience, and in my current context in Arkansas, however, this has not been the case. Pluralism in these places has meant a small Mormon congregation, or perhaps a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. As such, rural congregations are often on the outside looking in as they regard conversations about pluralism. To speak with a practicing Muslim, Jew or Hindu, a rural Christian often must travel to another, larger community and make a contact. In a brief and unscientific poll of the pastors I work with here in Arkansas, none reported having a worshiping community of a non-Christian faith in their town. Further, the presence of any religious person who practiced another faith was novel. One pastor noted that his town “had one Jewish woman.”

Rural congregations are often on the outside looking in as they regard conversations about pluralism…

For many rural pastors and congregants of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) persuasion, this can leave us wondering what role, if any, we might play in promoting ecumenism or embracing members of minority faiths in the United States? How do we act as an ally or advocate when our communities are almost entirely Christian, and should we even bother? It seems to me that, despite the challenges, the answer to the latter question is an emphatic “yes!”  One of the finest aspects of our tradition is our commitment to ecumenism. Presbyterians are often active in ministerial alliances and interfaith groups. We, by and large, respect
people from other faith traditions.

It is vital that we witness to these core values even if we are living and working in a place that lacks religious diversity.

It might be that some of the most important witnesses to the value and importance of pluralism may be in our rural congregations. While there might not be other faith traditions represented in many rural places, we can be sure that some members of our communities have formed opinions about people of other faiths. We can also sadly be sure that other pastors in our communities have worked to intentionally calcify negative views of people from other faith traditions. It is useful to remember the work Jesus did to prevent the “othering” that often can happen to people of other faiths. He used the Samaritan as a paradigm of neighborliness. He healed the Roman centurion’s daughter. He called out the tax collector. He touched the leper. The list goes on and on, but it is clear that our Lord and Savior was quite concerned with breaking down rather than building up barriers between peoples.

My thought about pluralism in rural places is to simply be intentional about weaving it into what we already do. Can we speak directly to it in a sermon as appropriate? Can we have a short Sunday school series exploring other faiths? Can we speak up when we hear things shared in our community that do not respect the full humanity of a person of another faith?

In rural churches, our plates are pretty full, and this might feel like yet another thing we have to do. But it’s not.

Pluralism and respect for people of other faiths is a piece of our discipleship. As rural people and leaders, we have both an opportunity and an obligation to both witness and testify to Jesus’ inclusive ministry.