This post is part 6 of a series of responses to questions posed to candidates for moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly.
Q: In our interactions with people of other religions and faith traditions, as Presbyterians we seek respectful dialogical relationships and authentic witness. How do you understand the relationship between witness and dialogue with people of other religions and faith traditions?
A: I have invested a lot of time and energy in interfaith work. I consider dialogue a spiritual practice. It is a patient speaking of truth as I know it, and a humble listening for wisdom from others.
The church I serve, University Presbyterian Church, launched an adult interfaith education center 13 years ago, with important leadership from the pastor at the time, Lib McGregor Simmons. Named the “SoL” (Source of Light) Center, we offer short courses such as “the Global Refugee Crisis,” “Abraham in Judaism, Islam and Christianity,” and “The Spiritual Practice of Forgiveness.”
A course I had the opportunity to design was “Who Speaks for Islam?” drawing on the title of a book by the same name.
During the class, I interviewed women from Iran and Pakistan, and men from Turkey, Jamaica, Iraq and the US. I asked them about their jobs, their families and their practices of faith. During this course none of us who were Christian spoke about our faith, yet this was the beginning of dialogue. Dialogue creates a space of honor and hospitality for the “other” and lets him/her tell their story on their own terms. By offering space to people from numerous places and experiences, we also communicated something I feel is very important about dialogue: do not set up a situation where one person represents an entire tradition.
One of the most powerful moments of this interview process was when I asked the Turkish man, “what would you like the group to know that I haven’t asked?” he responded, “Thank you for not asking me about terrorism. Thank you for asking me about my life and what I care about.”
Dialogue is our witness to Jesus Christ, as we honestly share our stories with one another. Dialogue recognizes that we all have something to learn from others, and that God’s wisdom is not confined to the lips and hearts of those who share our particular faith. Dialogue can inspire and transform. We leave the results of these encounters to God.