Interfaith pilgrims

Illinois conferees learn to see the religious other as a gift

Jun 1, 2020 by and

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On Friday afternoons, the corner office at First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, Ill., looks out on a steady stream of worshipers gathering for prayer. They park at the FMC lot and trek across a busy intersection to the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center.

The church’s parking lot is more holy ground for playing this tiny part in the weekly worship of the local mosque.

This Friday parking-lot sharing and trek has been going on for more than 15 years.

Often members at FMC make the same short journey: as a guest at prayers, for interfaith gatherings or meetings with the mosque’s leaders.

A cool evening last November was one such occasion. We parked in the church lot and found ourselves in a quiet procession alongside a rabbi, other Mennonites, Methodists and Muslims.

Later that night, Lutheran scholar Mark Swanson asked the crowd of 250 people gathered at the mosque, “What if pilgrimage is a description of interreligious engagement?”

Like our journey from the church parking lot! We were pilgrims traveling deeper into faith expressions not our own.

This experience was part of a conference, “Cultivating Hope in Anxious Times: An Interfaith Exploration” Nov. 7-10 in Champaign-Urbana. Several Mennonites played key roles.

Pray-ers and preachers

Over a generous meal, we pilgrims were nourished by a panel of speakers. Safwat Marzouk, professor of Hebrew Bible at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., summed up the evening: We learn to see in the religious other a gift through whom God can fulfill each one’s needs and dreams. The interfaith pilgrim returns home from the journey strengthened by the gift.

A sacred gift came when our Muslim hosts announced eve­ning prayers would begin shortly, followed by a Shabbat service for the Jewish worshipers. For the next hour, the spacious masjid echoed with pray-ers and preachers in Arabic, English and Hebrew.

When the imam concluded salat al-maghrib, the prayer room was rearranged for the rabbi to lead Shabbat worship. And there we were: followers of Jesus singing the Psalms, led by Jewish worshipers in the sanctuary of a mosque. It was a profound moment that would make Sarah and Abraham proud.

Sacred capital

In his keynote address, “Diversity Is Not Just the Differences You Like: Leadership in the Time of Tribalism,” Eboo Patel — an interfaith leader who is a University of Illinois alum — urged faith communities and universities to strengthen interfaith leadership skills and grow our capacities for “empathetic citizenship.”

He emphasized the role of religious communities and the “sacred capital” they provide in shaping sociopolitical values.

He cited the importance of reaching youth regarding interfaith respect. An analysis of perpetrators attacking people of other faiths indicates the experiences and teachings of their youth made a difference in shaping their attitudes.

He encouraged us to embrace the glory of our own traditions and to be fully grounded in our own faiths as a basis for interfaith engagement.

Glimpses of beauty

Francis Clooney, a Jesuit priest and Harvard professor, drew attention to remarks from Nostra Aetete, the 1965 Roman Catholic declaration on non-Christian religions: “The Cath­olic Church rejects none of the things that are true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere attentiveness those ways of acting and living, those precepts and doctrines which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless by no means rarely reflect the radiance of that Truth which enlightens all people.”

Swanson said there is no better way to get a Christian theological education than in conversation with other faiths, because it forces us to go deep. Seeing the coherence of other faiths and glimpsing their beauty enriches our own spiritual lives.

Two panel discussions considered moving “Beyond Tolerance” — exceeding mere tolerance of religious diversity in favor of a vision of pluralism in which each religious community is strengthened by engagement with difference.

The first panel, held at the mosque, drew scholars of varied faith traditions from Chicago, Indiana and Ohio. The second, hosted at Sinai Temple, featured faith leaders from the Champaign-Urbana community.

Marzouk, of AMBS, proposed a new vision for interfaith engagement — from minimizing difference to accepting difference. The next step is to move from accepting difference to seeing the religious other as a gift. It is a relationship in which the self and the other express their needs and contribute to meeting each other’s needs.

When adherents of different faiths find healthy ways of boundary crossing and boundary maintaining, they turn their differences into a source of enrichment and bring healing and peace to a broken world.

Studying the Torah

The speakers on the panels at the mosque and at Sinai Temple emphasized the importance for members of the religious majority to express solidarity with threatened religious minorities, and many examples of such solidarity were described.

Prior to the panel discussion at the temple, several Mennonites were invited and attended a Torah study group at the Sinai Temple. The group studied together a passage from Genesis. There was recognition that Christians and Jewish Bible-Torah students sought God’s truth from the same Scripture but from different traditions.

At the temple discussion, faith leaders shared the interfaith dimensions of their own faith journeys and strengthened a collective commitment to aligning against xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy.

To continue the work of interfaith engagement, two yearlong programs were defined for students and community members. The first is focused on interfaith community-action partnerships. First Mennonite Church and other local faith communities host students and community members in action programs to help them learn about the Mennonite faith. The second is focused on visits to houses of worship with interactive meals.

Wide involvement

This collaboration was led by a steering committee composed of rabbis of Jewish congregations, the imam of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, professors in the Department of Religion and student affairs leaders at the University of Illinois, leaders of the University YMCA, pastors of various Christian churches, community leaders and students. Tim Seidel, director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Interfaith Engagement, was the deep listener. Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA provided financial resources for other Mennonite congregations to be involved. The drama group Ted & Company TheaterWorks, led by Ted Swartz, performed I’d Like to Buy an Enemy 2.0: The Fear Factor.

Michael Crosby, pastor of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, chaired the steering committee for “Cultivating Hope in Anxious Times.” Earl Kellogg, a member of First Mennonite Church, provided leadership in fundraising and collaboration with the University of Illinois.


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