By Jeff Brumley
November means fall and fall means Thanksgiving and in many communities that means it’s time for some form of the annual interfaith gratitude service.
Rabbis, imams, pastors and Hindu and Buddhist priests will process through synagogues, mosques, churches or temples (depending on who’s turn it is in the rotation). Prayers will be said for the cessation of violence and bigotry and an increase in understanding across nations and faiths.
But those actively involved in year-round interfaith efforts say such services, along with annual interfaith breakfasts, are only one aspect of their work.
Believe it or not, they say, interfaith engagement has very practical, here-and-now benefits to congregations and their surrounding communities.
“Interfaith dialogue and interfaith relationships provide an incredible witness to the community that we are part of a global community, even right here in our neighborhoods,” said Mitch Randall, pastor of NorthHaven Church, a Baptist congregation in Norman, Okla.
Working openly with other faith groups demonstrates that cooperation is possible, even globally, by demonstrating “a peaceful and productive way that we can work together.”
For Randall, a turning point came with participation in an event marking the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. The evening interfaith event included Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and Imad Enchassi, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City.
That began a continuing and growing relationship with the mosque, which in turn prepared NorthHaven for subsequent social and cultural challenges in the community.
One was the Sept. 25 beheading of a woman in nearby Moore, Okla., by a co-worker who had recently converted to Islam. While national and local Muslim organizations condemned the murder, media-driven fear and hostility helped generate a local outcry against Muslims.
But not at NorthHaven, where church members had become accustomed to seeing and hearing Muslims, Randall said.
“What that relationship has done for us is allow us to step back,” Randall said. “On the Wednesday night after that tragic event, we talked about violence, violence-laced rhetoric, how the media feeds this fear in our culture about all Muslims, how it is perpetuated over and over again.”
Those ongoing relationships also made NorthHaven a welcoming place when a Muslim from Afghanistan, who had interpreted for U.S. military forces there, appeared at the church shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in October.
A church member who also is an Army officer brought the man to church where he was welcomed without controversy by Randall and the congregation.
That officer, Kelly Lynn, said he had no qualms about bringing a Muslim to church with him.
“Everybody has welcomed him with open arms,” Lynn said.
‘A unique voice’
Randall’s attitude about interfaith may not be universal in Baptist circles, but it is in keeping with Baptist tradition, according to guidelines published online by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.
“Several Baptist principles, taken to their natural conclusions, signal that Baptists should be among the forerunners of interfaith relations,” says the document posted on the organization’s website.
One of those principles is soul competency.
“A belief in soul competency implies an openness to God’s work in various ways among all peoples,” it says. “It suggests that all persons, regardless of faith tradition, can contribute their spiritual experiences and insights in the spirit of dialogue and cooperation.”
Religious liberty and an emphasis in missions also encourage interfaith work.
“The Baptist belief in religious liberty should not end with the right for all peoples to believe and worship freely,” the document states. “Baptists must not only tolerate others, but should engage them in relationship so that all may contribute toward the common goals of faith, understanding and service.”
Rather than threatening the integrity of missions work, interfaith dialogue potentially enhances it.
“Baptists can provide a unique voice, giving witness to the work of God through Christ and inviting all persons to deeper relationships with God and humanity.”
Speaking with one voice
Because interfaith dialogue does not require Baptists to adopt the beliefs of others, it opens the door to creating relationships that can benefit entire communities.
“I think there is political value for the common good,” said Steve Wells, pastor at South Main Baptist Church in Houston.
Wells saw that firsthand last year when he participated in a faith-based campaign to convince Houston officials to adopt an ordinance placing strict limits on payday lenders in the city.
Wells spent months convincing first Baptists, then a wide range of other Christian leaders to sign a letter demanding the ordinance’s adoption. Leaders of other faiths conducted similar pushes for signatories on the letter.
The campaign, which included a press conference where all these faith leaders appeared, worked. Wells said it probably wouldn’t have if just a group of white Baptists had asked for the ordinance’s passage.
“But when you have white, black, Hispanic and Asian clergy from every stripe of Christendom; and the full spread of Judaism from Reform to Ultra-Orthodox; and imams and Baha’i and Buddhist leaders all coming together — then politicians hear the faith community speaking on this and knew they represented lots of registered voters,” Wells said.
It was a political effect due to interfaith unity, Wells said, adding it’s most effective when targeted at a specific goal or cause.
“There are partnerships to be had for common goals,” he said.