After a couple of hours of the panel speaking, mostly to each other, an exasperated pastor said, “Look, can I be honest? If in my sermon, I say Jesus did something radical, like he would have been nice to a Muslim or something, I lose five members that day! All you are telling me sounds nice and good but it is not practical.”
Most of the other pastors in attendance nodded their heads in silent agreement.
I thanked the pastor for being honest about it and I could see he was visibly struggling. His face softened with the affirmation and I asked for his permission to ask him a provocative question. He said, “Go ahead. What do I have to lose?”
I said, “How many friends do you have personally of a different faith? How many refugees do you know by name? How many African Americans do you know personally who do not work for you?”
His face was a blank stare. He held my gaze for a few moments and turned his head downwards to look at his shoes.
I quickly moved on to the audience and asked them to challenge themselves the same way. I think I noticed quite a bit of squirming.
After the panel was over, I walked over to this pastor and asked his name and looked him in the eye and told him that these were some of the questions I have had to ask other pastors. I told him that the reason I could ask these questions is that I have the luxury of being born into such diversity and that I never had to be challenged with such questions.
My mother was white American. My father was of the Yoruba tribe from Nigeria. My paternal grandfather was a Rabbi. My sister in law is a Muslim. My mother was an agnostic. My father was an atheist. I grew up in a country where Muslims and Christians live side by side with no religious disputes until recently. I have a family member exploring Buddhism and, like I often say, “I came out the womb loving Jesus.”
I said to the pastor, “I probably take for granted how difficult diversity can be for those that are not graced with it like I am.”
He laughed out loud, grateful for the levity. We talked about how proximity is the healing balm that creates relationships with people of diverse backgrounds. We also talked about changing the narrative of defining the “other.” I explained to him that when he preaches and admonishes his parishioners to, “Go out there and make friends with a stranger,” that is still “othering” the stranger. I encouraged him to revisit the word “stranger” and replace it with “neighbor.”
I pointed out that when the stranger becomes a friend and he introduces his friend to his congregation by saying, “This friend of mine who is an Imam said...” then he has brought the “other” into the fold and made him a neighbor.
Of course, this wonderful pastor himself has done a lot of volunteer work in the refugee community and is a kind and generous man. His openness was refreshing and he listened to what I shared. The language of turning a “stranger” into a “neighbor” was the shift he needed.
This interaction showed me the necessity for interfaith communication today. We have become so polarized that we no longer want to take any risk to know our neighbors, our political opponents, and even new Americans such as refugees and immigrants.
Here are some steps that ministers can take to soften the polarity the entire country is currently experiencing politically in their own communities of faith:
- Name the problem: Address the issue. It is not going away. Speak about the polarity and the need for solidarity in these times. Speak about the temples and the mosques that are being desecrated throughout the country. Speak about how you are processing this information. You do not always have to appear to have it all together and pretend to have all the answers all the time. Show your congregation your humanity by wrestling with these issues in an open way. This shows them that it is normal to wrestle with such issues. It shows them that dialogue is healthy. It shows them the emotional process that all humans go through when they choose to wrestle with their ethics and sense of personhood. This is an act of necessary courage.
- Encourage proximity: First do it for yourself and then be an example to your congregation. I wonder if there is a rabbi out there who just picks up the phone and calls a mosque in the nearest city and says, “I am a rabbi and I am at congregation such and such. I would like to meet with the Imam of your mosque for coffee one day. I just want to be a friendly neighbor.” This is how proximity starts and turns strangers into neighbors. The news is no longer a reliable intermediary between distinct groups in the same city. We must be the reliable originators of communication. And, we must begin to form new relationships with people that we never considered before.
- Change the narrative: Famed civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson talks about how many years ago, alcoholics were considered degenerate members of society. Today, we speak of them as having an illness and there is much more support for alcoholics. This is a prime example of a changed narrative. What is the narrative you are telling yourself and others about “those people?” Our narrative, as members of Abrahamic religions, must be based on hospitality towards the stranger. My last count came up with over 36 references to “welcoming the stranger” in the Old Testament alone. Our narrative cannot be consistent with our sacred texts while we hold “the stranger” at bay. As you observe and change your own internal dialogue, you will then become a pioneer in your community helping to changing the societal dialogue about “us” by including the stranger as neighbor.
In my work as a leadership development coach, I find that faith leaders often lead themselves out of the equation. They are trying to take their congregation to the mountaintop and sometimes, they leave themselves out of the process. Leadership starts with you making a change. If a leader does not do his or her work, then his or her people have no one to emulate. It is challenging and it is hard but it is necessary for the health of your congregation.
* Are you an ordained or lay leader looking for coaching? Visit the ICTG Coaching and Spiritual Direction page here>
Iyabo is a former attorney and graduate of Georgetown University Law School. She also graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory University with a Master of Divinity. Iyabo is a lead facilitator for Fearless Dialogues, a grassroots organization that helps unlikely partners engage in meaningful conversations, founded by Dr. Gregory C. Ellison, II, a renowned pastoral care professor.
Iyabo lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be found on the web at http://www.coachiyabo.com