Cognitive Dissidents

Autumn with Interfaith Partnership has always been one of my favorite times of our program year. We spend the early summer preparing for fall’s big events—the Festival of Nations, the annual Interfaith Concert, and the Annual Dinner & Celebration—and in August, that simmering energy finally comes to a rolling boil. Those who’ve been preparing their faith booths for the Festival of Nations finally convene in Tower Grove Park under the tent together, as we welcome the public into our Religions of the World tent. We are working hard in the office, and our board/cabinet members and many others are working out in the community, and now is when many of those components seem to finally converge into a meaningful, coordinated movement.

Why does this movement, then—in which we might be in different lanes but we’re all committed to being on the same highway, headed toward mutual respect and understanding between persons of faith—why can it feel like Siri is shouting out navigational directions that are sending us in erratic, often contradictory directions? How can my favorite season also be the one that’s most challenging, most overwhelming, the one in which I’m most likely to lose my patience with my closest allies and friends?

The messages and themes of this season are part of one of the tenderest contradictions that we handle in our interfaith work. Those intentions set up a seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy. One extremely important objective—and urgent, if we heed the advice of The Ferguson Commission Report—is to implement strategies, plans and attitudes that welcome the other with arms wide open. We are part of a system that perpetuates disparities in education, health care/health outcomes, income and many other determinants of life expectancy and satisfaction. Interfaith Partnership has continuously sought justice for all persons, despite religious affiliation.

In that vein, some of the most important touchpoints (for me) of the last month have built prophetic messages into their work, to dismantle systems of oppression that unfairly hold back the potential of some of our brothers and sisters. Diversity Awareness Partnership, with former IP Executive Director Reena Hajat Carrol at the helm, has offered a yearlong series of events called Listen.Talk.Learn, in which participants from absolutely every part of the community are invited into authentic dialogue about our perceptions of others and how we can teach ourselves as individuals and community to do so much better. I also entered into a dialogue with clergy who are developing a program to implement the recommendations of Washington University’s “For the Sake of All,” a fairly comprehensive document that outlines the troubling disparities in health care for persons across race. In August, they hosted a training for congregation leaders to explore how to best manage these recommendations.

Two weeks ago the Ferguson Commission Report was released, and in it, Interfaith Partnership is named, among a sea of others, who will be the actors that work to realize the vision of a commission committed to undoing the racism that is threaded through our culture and institutions—whether we wanted it there or not. (And I suspect, for the most part, not.)

Welcoming our neighbor means more than just the literal hug; it’s also the authentic, supportive, equitable embrace of a community that values all persons as children of God.

But on the other hand, we are also engaged in programming with a message that challenges the open embrace of every persons that comes through our doorways. We have important reasons to establish a high level of safety—and the perception of safe spaces—so we can do our best work. In April, people of faith all over the country stumbled in the wake of a devastating church shooting in Charleston. Too close to home, a gunman opened fire and killed three people at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City. Multiple churches have been burned, reminiscent of the church burnings in the wake of the original civil rights movement. Muslims are still being unfairly targeted and labeled as terrorists, even though they are many times more likely to die at the hands of extremists than others.  We must only peer onto the face of a child playing in a congregation’s nursery to see that we have every responsibility to maintain safe spaces where people of faith can worship, gather, work and play without threat of bodily or other injury.

In mid-August, Interfaith Partnership was a co-sponsor of a day-long conference created by the Anti-Defamation League. This security conference was a first step in educating congregational leaders in the importance of safety, as well as a foundation of training for the possibility of an active shooter situation. Those gathered for this excellent event constituted one of the most diverse groups I’ve seen in a room with only 30 people: representatives from Reform, Traditional and Orthodox Judaism, Muslims with five different ethnic backgrounds (I counted!), a number of Protestant leaders as well as a representative of the Archdiocese (Catholic), and others. From just that room, it’s easy to see that maintaining safe spaces is a concern for just about every faith community, not just those who we’ve seen in the news as victims of inexcusable hate crimes.

I used to work in a local congregation in Webster Groves. Though it seemed like a purely logistical question at the beginning, the concern about the front door of the church was often discussed. There’s the tactical question of how to get people through a door that’s locked—do we give them all keys? How about a doorbell? But the meaning of the gesture encapsulates the seeming dissonance inherent today: how do we find the balance between creating truly inclusive communities while still providing the safe spaces that engender faith work? Even the words we use for these mutually exclusive purposes seem like different dialects: if we put up a tidy hedge, are we securing the perimeter or are we maintaining a visible and welcoming neighborhood presence?

So many clergy have been living the reality of this tension for their entire careers. They’ve spent their careers creating and maintaining congregations where all people are welcome, where the members fight tooth-and-nail for cultural change that supports all of God’s people. In being able to work with (or admire from Facebook, in other cases) these leaders, and in exploring this tension myself, most especially these last few weeks, I come back again and again to the wisdom that has propelled just about everything I’ve ever done.

We must know one another better. We must exist in mutually supportive, respectful relationships where we have room to differ and always remain committed to enacting the love of neighbor that is prescribed in every religion. That can’t happen until we stop and ask a stranger to become a real neighbor.

We must engage in ways that allow us to discover the needs and values of people who are different from us. Interfaith dialogue, whether in a formal or an organic setting, facilitates some of the most amazing relationships across faiths, and those relationships are the foundation of the interfaith movement. Interfaith is the specific way that my professional work engages this movement, but there are so many important barriers to cross and dismantle. We must know people of all types, who are different from us on the outside and on the inside.

Kenneth Pruitt, Director of Diversity Training at DAP (mentioned above), explained quite succinctly the purpose of their work: their trainings work by allowing participants “to see things from a different perspective because they listened to someone’s real story.” And Felicia Pulliam, who once worked at Interfaith Partnership and is now an important part of the Ferguson Commission, said recently, “We just don’t know each other very well…In our hyper-segregated community, we just don’t understand what’s going on in each other’s world.” (from

You are invited to any and all of Interfaith Partnership’s programs, where I encourage you to arrive with an open heart and very, very open ears. Introduce yourself to someone new, especially someone who doesn’t look like you. Does it take courage? It does for me. I do this work year-round and yet still feel my heart beat with trepidation when I enter a new holy space where I don’t know anybody. I wonder frequently whether I’m dressed appropriately or if I’m erring on the side of being too familiar rather than formal. But I continue to do this work professionally—and personally, where even in my own imperfect way I’m trying to get to know my neighbors—because it encourages a cultural shift wherein we treat all people as friends and neighbors because we know enough about them to recognize their humanity.

We must be part of a growing culture that values all people as children of God. There is no part of the interfaith movement, as seemingly irreconcilable as some of our work may be, that doesn’t reiterate the urgency of this message. You may pray in a sanctuary or with your feet, but I encourage you to listen for the answer to your prayers in the voice of the stranger-made-friend.

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