by Sydnor Thompson, III
One of the compelling challenges the church faces in our modern age is the challenge of building community with men and women of other faiths. It’s not an easy task—there are so many forces today that push us to fear and distrust of others. We find such forces not only in extremists of other faiths but also in our own. Religious terror and violence seems to be spreading across our world like a cancer.
For the past two years I’ve been blessed to be a part of an interfaith trialogue in Gastonia, including members of several local Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith communities. I’ve learned a few things in this communal “experiment” in interfaith dialogue that I’d like to share with you.
First, I’ve learned about the power of personal relationship in overcoming the stereotypes and misperceptions we so easily slip into when we encounter “the other,” especially those of other religions. I’ve learned all of us share similar dreams and aspirations for ourselves and our loved ones, even as we share similar weaknesses and character flaws. Establishing personal relationships with people of other faiths moves us beyond the realm of doctrine and ideology towards an encounter which opens us to finding and celebrating the image of God in one another.
Secondly, encountering other faiths has helped me to discern what I believe to be the most valuable and enduring in my own. Many of us might stay away from interfaith relationships thinking that exposure to other faiths might confuse us or lead us to doubt our own faith. I believe the reverse is true. Opening to people of other faiths forces us to move deeper in our relationship with God and enriches our experience of his judgment and his grace in our lives.
Lastly, my experience of interfaith community has surprised me, not only in discovering and acknowledging differences in the three Abrahamic traditions, but also in finding resonant commonalities. Breaking bread with my Jewish and Muslim and Christian friends of various denominations, has opened me to a shared experience of hospitality and grace that has affirmed my faith in the God who created and is at work in us all.
There is much in our world that drives us in the direction of fear, hostility and violence. I am thankful for those of all faiths who are willing to come together in dialogue, to be vulnerable to each other, to listen to each other, and to share what is most precious to them in community. It is through such encounters, I believe, that God brings his healing mercies and the hope of peace to us all.
Sydnor is the Senior Pastor at Myers Memorial UMC in Gastonia and a Chaplain in the United States Navy Reserves.