A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian Sat Down at a Table

My discussions on this blog usually revolve around issues related to churches with a mix of black and white members, because that is where I live. On Sunday I had the opportunity to attend an Interfaith Roundtable Discussion hosted by the local Turkish Cultural Center and a local Synagogue.

The Turkish Cultural Center only moved into the neigbourhood a year or so ago. The arrival of a Muslim organization raised a few eyebrows among people I talked to. In about August I made the decision to introduce myself and spent an hour or so talking to the director of the Peace Islands Institute that the TCC sponsors. Peace Islands is like a public relations branch that seeks to facilitate dialogue with groups who only know Muslims through what they see on the nightly news.  As a result of that visit I am now on their email list and receive invitations to their various community events. This was my first opportunity to attend.

muslim jew 01I really wasn’t sure what to expect as I turned up at this event on Sunday, but I enjoyed the experience. The theme for the day was “Interfaith Interactions Within Our Social Circles”. Rather than the series of lectures that I was expecting, the facilitators had us sit at tables with people of other faiths. Strangely, with about 50 people present, I was the only Christian representative in the room. As I was attending in order to observe and learn I chose not to declare my faith affiliation and limited my discussion mostly to questions. Each table was given a sheet of discussion questions and every ten minutes of so a spokesperson from each table would share our main thoughts with the rest of the room. Here’s a sampling of the questions:

  • How do you interact with people from other faiths when you know it is their holiday? (eg Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukuh, Ramadan)
  • Have you greeted people of other faiths on their holidays? How did you feel about it? Do you know and follow your own religious practice whether it promotes or limits well wishes?
  • At the work place where people are of different faith groups, do you eat together and join conversations?
  • You are watching a game in a public place where there are people from other faith groups, and some of these people support your team, how do you interact with them during that time? Do you share your excitement with them? Does your or their attention shift to a curiosity about what you are, or what they are?
  • How do you manage/strategize your communication on social media? Are there moments you are being offended or you think it is offensive? How do you handle it, react to it?

What I appreciated about this process is that it focused upon the common ground between Muslims and Jews. In this way they could learn from each other.

  • They are each minority religious groups within American culture.
  • They each have distinct religious dietary restrictions.
  • They each have holidays unique to their religion/culture.
  • They each often feel like they live in a hostile environment.
  • Most members of each group are first or second generation immigrants.
  • Many members of each group speak English as a second language.

Does it surprise you to consider that Jews and Muslims in the U.S. share so many experiences? Are you amazed that members of these two religions can sit around a table and share experiences and learn from one another? The TV talking heads would have us believe the two groups should be firing rockets at each other.

Of course, I imagine that there are topics of conversation that would raise the heat in the room, but it’s impressive what can be accomplished when we decide to focus on what we share in common rather than our differences.

I believe that churches can learn a lot from this process.

I’m not suggesting that we should sweep all differences under the rug, but most often when the proliferation of mono-racial churches is discussed, all I hear are the differences: race, culture, worship style, preaching style, food…. We need to find ways to remind each of our common ground, our holy ground, without sacrificing our cultural identities.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV)

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More Than a Dream

I didn’t attend a MLK Day event today. I feel ashamed of this. But my daughter was sick in the middle of the night and never went back to sleep. I just couldn’t be downtown at 8:30 for the big event.

I haven’t read as much of Dr King’s writings as I’d like. Each time the third Monday in January rolls around I’m reminded that I’ve neglected them again.

I can easily run through my list of regrets:

  • Not drinking enough coffee with people of other races and cultures;
  • Not using enough diversity in my sermon illustrations;
  • Not taking steps to make my church’s worship services more culturally inclusive;
  • Not praying as I should for God to break down racial barriers in our church and community;
  • Not getting involved in a reconciliation organization outside the church.

If I thought longer I could probably come up with more.

My intent in sharing this list is not a subtle attempt to have you un-friend me. (In fact, if you’re reading this you may be the only active reader I have!)  Rather, I share my regret list as a reminder that progress requires intentionality.

One might cite Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin as an accidental discovery that had a positive impact upon the world, but even there Fleming was intentionally searching for such a substance. He was working in an advanced laboratory. He had advanced degrees in his field. He knew what he was looking at in the fungus covered dish.

Churches sometimes become multi-ethnic by accident. I’ve seen situations where a split in a church with predominantly one race, leads to a significant group from that church joining a sister congregation whose members predominantly represent another race. Suddenly, the second church is multiracial… by accident.

However, if the members of this new congregation think they only need to turn up on Sunday and everything will be okay, they will soon discover otherwise.

The civil rights movement in the United States did not happen by accident. Dr King’s speeches and the movement he spearheaded did not happen by accident. Although Dr King had a dream, he didn’t develop that dream sitting in a rocking chair on a porch watching fire flies dance in the moonlight. His dream evolved from his experience, his faith and his education. His dream only moved toward reality because he was prepared to pursue it and gifted to inspire others to pursue it with him. And as my friend Sean Palmer pointed out in a blog he wrote last week, these people were willing to bleed to change their world.

mlk dream speech 01Churches and church leaders who dream of racial harmony have found a great starting point. What they do next is vital.

Will they seek out other races and listen to their stories?

.     What books will they read?

.          Will they involve themselves in their communities?

.              Will they learn new languages?

.                  Are they willing to make adjustments in the feel of their worship services?

.                      Will they accept new leaders in the church and treat them as equals?

If no one asks questions like these, or if the answer to each question is negative, the dream will die as quickly as it was born.

Through the echoes of history Martin Luther King Day calls us to keep dreaming. It also calls us to action… not accidents.

Each year I read at least one book on the subject of race relations and/or multi-ethnic church leadership. Today I bought the books I’ll read this year. When the third Monday of January rolls around in 2016 I’ll know more about Martin Luther King Jr than I do today. Next year I’ll have one less regret.

Progress requires intentionality.

What intentions do you have for the coming year to turn MLK’s dream to reality?

Multicultural Churches Have Better Parties

How does your church party? Or more to the point, when does your church party?

A monocultural church can quickly answer this question by referring to a calendar. What are the national holidays? Which ones do people celebrate privately? Which ones can the church piggyback?

I know churches that host a 4th of July fireworks extravaganza each year. When I worked in the church in Melbourne someone organized an area-wide Anzac Day picnic each April. In fact, I know that these Anzac Day Picnics occur among Churches of Christ in several cities around the country.

I’ve attended churches that hand out flowers to ladies on Mothers’ Day. I’ve seen churches make a beg event out of Halloween. Some turn the Superbowl into a significant Sunday with a special sermon and other events. Some churches emphasise Thanksgiving while others put all their energy into Christmas.

Martin-Luther-King-Day 01I raise this topic at this time because I serve in a church with a large African-American membership and there are significant dates in their community that I haven’t previously given a lot of attention.

  • Some of my members celebrate Kwanzaa, which runs from 26 December to 1 January.
  • On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation.
  • The third Monday in January is Martin Luther King Day.
  • In the United States, March is Black History Month.

I’ve struggled to make these dates significant in the life of my church. It’s something I need to work on. I should expect everyone to celebrate Superbowl Sunday with me if I’m not willing to join by black brothers and sisters in their celebrations.

But these dates are more than just an excuse to have a party. They also tell an important theological redemptive story of justice, equality and love for neighbour. Our churches and world need to hear this message and these dates seem to provide a great opportunity to raise the topic.

Beyond just preaching on these topics or showing a motivational video, I’m very curious whether other churches involve themselves in community celebrations of these events. I know that sometimes members participate, but I wonder how many churches actively promote participation in community organised MLK reconciliation events?

As churches grow more culturally diverse we need to embrace a willingness to expand our celebrations. Hispanic holidays are more difficult to schedule as each country have their own significant days. Which Hispanic holidayIMG_2204s will your church celebrate as the neighbourhood demographics change?

How could your church celebrate Chinese New Year? What message would this send to local international students or migrants?

We have quite a large Indian workforce in Rochester, although no Indian members attending our church. I don’t even know their significant holidays. It seems to me that a significant question would be, “How can the church engage this population if these holidays are all related to Hinduism?”

A couple of years ago I hosted an Australia Day game night at my church. We didn’t have a large turnout, but I greatly appreciated those who turned out on a snowy, January night.

Parties, holidays, and celebrations provide a great indicator of the progress a church has made down the road of cultural integration. These events help us to not only better understand each other, they also help churches build a bridge toward these communities outside the church.

When a multicultural church sits down to plan calendar events for the coming year, it should intentionally ask the question, “Which cultural celebrations do we want to participate in this year?” Far too often we simply participate in those most familiar to us.

I’d love for you to leave a comment describing a cross-cultural celebration you’ve experienced.