A number of years ago, when I was the Episcopal Campus Minister at UC-Berkeley, I ran a couple of programs for my students called “Near Neighbors.” The premise behind the program was that it was pretty easy for Episcopalians to have good conversations with Buddhists or Jews or Muslims. They didn’t pose a “threat!” Those that DID pose a threat were our “near neighbors” — Christians of other stripes with whom there might be some significant points of disagreement.
The first group of students we invited were friends of one of the Episcopalian kids; they were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons. We began the evening as we usually did . . . eating (always a success!). Then we broke into small groups for discussion. I gave everyone the same three questions to answer (i.e., no-one was exempted from answering the questions):
1. How is your faith a help in your life as a student?
2. How is your faith a problem in your life as a student?
3. How do you practice your faith on a regular (daily, weekly, etc.) basis?
All of the conversations were rich. I could hear laughter at each of the groups. When it came time to close down the evening, they all said, “We’re not done! Can we do this again next week?” I had to say “No. Next week is already planned. But we CAN do it the following week.” And they all came back and the conversation continued. And, at the end, both groups invited the others to join them in church; the leader of the Latter-day Saints contingent even said “Please come, and we won’t tell the missionaries.”
One of the things that made the conversations so valuable was that the questions had nothing to do with differences. Nor did the questions focus on trying to find some theological “common ground.” No expertise was needed, or assumed. On the contrary, the questions all had to do with personal experience, personal experiences based in a shared culture: college student life. Both groups could commiserate in how difficult it was to be “religious” on the very secular Cal campus. Both very much appreciated the support from their home congregations. On the other hand, the Episcopalian kids were blown away (perhaps, shamed) by how “faithfully” the Latter-day Saints practiced their religion.* The Latter-day Saints were surprised by how hospitable were the Episcopalians.
I was reminded of this experience a few weeks ago when I was invited to be part of a panel at Metro State. There were four of us who were asked to talk about how our faith was lived out (both individually and corporately); we were a charismatic Christian, a Reform rabbi, a member of the Rocky Mountain Islamic Center (in Lakewood), and me, an Episcopal priest. We were told ahead of time by the teacher (a former student of mine at DU) that this wasn’t about theological differences, but about “lived religion”. Once again, I was struck by contrasts in practices, and, as in the past, I experienced “holy envy” (“Golly, I wish WE did that!”).
I was also made aware, too, of how often we take for granted how much everyone else’s “religious practice” might be like ours . . . and I mean within our own group. And, so, I have to wonder what we might learn from one another if we took some time to get into small groups and ask the same questions as did the students, just changing the last word in Questions 1 & 2 to something more pertinent: “as a parent?”, “as an employee?” “as a manager?” “as a citizen?” I imagine we’d be surprised, and occasionally struck by “holy envy”.
I will also admit that the conversations we had with our near (and not-so-near) neighbors gave me hope. Hope that perceived differences can be overcome through a generous curiosity and openness with others. “Hope Grows Here”, as you know, is the theme of our stewardship campaign. Amid the many other ways we may seek to nurture that hope—through our treasure, time and talent, may we be generous stewards of our experiences, our curiosity and our attention to one another . . . and to those beyond the church walls. Hope may catch on, and catch fire!
* You can imagine their amazement when we moved, later, beyond the “near neighbors” to talk with Muslim students! “Prayer five times a day, starting at what time?” “No bacon?” “Women sit where in the mosque, and don’t mind?”