"God Beyond Borders: Interfaith Education And Congregations," a Commentary by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook

January 1, 2009

Author: Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook

Source: Congregations


One Friday during Lent, Greg Foraker, director of adult formation ministries at St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona, entered the Islamic Center, the city’s largest mosque, to participate in worship with its 500 members. To the left of the entrance was a group of women in traditional attire and to the right was a room where the male members of the mosque wash their hands and feet in preparation for prayer. Feeling uncertain in this unfamiliar place, he turned to the room where he was to wash when he unexpectedly heard someone from the group of women call his name. To his surprise they turned out to be members of St. Philip’s, covered in traditional attire from head to toe, in keeping with the practice of their hosts! After a few nervous laughs of recognition, the group once again parted as the men and women gathered in separate areas for prayer and worship.

For Christians living in a predominantly Christian culture, it is relatively easy to go through life without learning about other faith traditions or seriouslyexamining our own. But Foraker and the women who attended the Islamic Center’s worship service were consciously and committedly doing so. They were part of their church’s Varieties of Religious Experience program, which grew out of the congregation’s desire to offer a less traditional Lenten program. It is essentially an experiential series of encounters focused on joining in worship with various religious traditions, followed by a meal and conversation.

The group of 18 who shared in prayers with Tucson’s Muslim community later gathered with the temple’s imam, or prayer leader, and a dozen members of the mosque community for a Middle Eastern meal, lively conversation, and an opportunity to build relationships across religious traditions. Members of St. Philip’s were impressed with the depth of the hospitality they received from the Muslim community, the shared dialogue experienced over the meal, as well as the shared commitment to forging deeper relationships across faith traditions in Tucson. “What at first seemed unfamiliar revealed connections not at first evident,” says Foraker.

In addition to Friday prayers at the mosque, the group was invited to sit zazen at Zen Desert Sangha, celebrate the festival of Ayyam-i-ha with the Tucson Baha’I, dance and chant “Hare Krishna” and at the Chaitanya Mandira, and keep Shabbat with Temple Emanu-El. The series culminated with the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Philip’s.

Foraker notes that not only did most participants attend each encounter, despite varying schedules and multiple locations, but that “each person reported that the experience was in some way transformative. This program was not your normative Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. adult education offering. The participants considered the encounters an adventure, and grew deeper in their own faith as a result of the process.” Some participants reported that the experience of religious differences challenged them to reflect deeper on their faith as a Christian. Others felt that the encounters opened up new channels of prayer and reflection. Still others experienced a desire to continue to forge interfaith relationships within the larger Tucson community.

Dr. S. Asif Razvi of the Islamic Center of Boston affirms the value of such encounters between Muslims and non-Muslims from his perspective. “Islam is a continuation of the other two Abrahamic faiths and it is every practicing Muslim’s obligation to inform others about our faith,” he says. “We find dialogue to be the best approach to inform non-Muslims and to correct the widespread misconceptions about Islam.”

The fact that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic country on earth is a truism, and encounters between people from different religions have reshaped American religion. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008) reports that over one-third of all married Americans are married to someone with a different religious affiliation.1 Porous world boundaries due to globalization, immigration, technology, and transportation have produced a climate where religious understanding—and misunderstanding—lies at the heart of local, national, and global issues.