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In a seminary course on World Religion last summer, I was assigned to write about organizing a community development project with a group or person who professed a different faith than mine. In many ways this experience positively shaped my motivations for building relationships, advocating for, and working with people of other faiths in my neighborhood. I want to explain why and how this type of cultural engagement is a crucial piece for all Christians to invest their time in.
If we want to know why we must build relationships with others, we need to look no further than the triune godhead- his very nature is relational as Father, Son, and Spirit. With this in mind we can intentionally invest in the relationship process by working to restore God’s command of biblical hospitality (Heb. 13:2), especially towards people of other religious traditions.
Exhibiting hospitality allows us to get past stereotypes of other religions and truly get to know their stories. If these conversations are done with charity and discernment we may be surprised to find that there are many common concerns that we share with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and others who inhabit our neighborhoods and cities. By engaging in these common issues, we can share our love for our neighbors in the name of Christ rather than simply tolerating or co-existing with them.
Initiating and engaging in this relationship within a multi-faith society is best done through constructive conversation, which requires two components: listening openly and talking graciously through our convictions. We must ask the hard questions that will help us define what we can and cannot work on together. Another element of these conversations could include breaking bread together. The Buddhist-Christian dialogues that I am involved in through New Wine, New Wineskins, are potluck-style. We meet in homes and discuss faith and social concerns over food that we make for one another.
Advocating for the concerns of others is another area we can work in community with other faith groups. The Bible gives many examples of the need to speak up for others’ well-being, as it says in Proverbs 31:8-9:
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."
We must also show the seriousness of our relationships with people of other religions by communicating their needs to society. Opportunities like this come through participating in community organizations and meetings where we can speak from a position of relationship, as one who seeks understanding and action on behalf of others. It is easy to identify with our own struggles, but it takes time and practice to express concerns on the behalf of others.
The work of actually “doing” justice with people outside of our faith tradition is the purpose of relationship building and advocacy. Whether your plan is to hold a clothing drive, distribute sandwiches, or help kids with homework, remember to make your meetings and communication very regular events. In this way, participants will remain clear about the goals, expectations, and plans for the future.
I have found it important for my own spiritual and social well-being to be encouraged by Scripture, as well as by mentors and friends, and remember that what I am doing requires me to stay rooted in the character of God. Multi-faith engagement in public justice requires patience rooted in love- not merely tolerance. Isn’t it great that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and didn’t just “tolerate” us? We do what we do to connect people with the love of Christ in our speech and actions. If we are constructively engaging together we can walk away from each experience richer in knowledge and relationships with precious people who are made uniquely in the image of God.
When you get the chance to explain why and how you are partnering with people of other faiths to do justice work, give direct invitations for people to join you. You don’t want the work or process you do to feel forced. You want people to understand the framework that you are working with and the good opportunities you’ve had to care for one another by discussing difficult things.
The faith landscape of America is changing, and we must be careful to avoid the fight or flight response to engaging people of other faith traditions. Constructive conversation, discernment, and just participation through the lens of Christ’s love can help us to make an impact in people’s lives for the common good.
-Andrew Kruse is currently working on church and school partnerships in Portland, OR. He is the Children's Pastor at Glenfair Church in Northeast Portland and actively involved in community development and inter-faith dialogues through The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins at Multnomah Biblical Seminary. Photo via GWToday.