Commentary: Interfaith work is a risk worth taking
April 17, 2006
A UMNS Commentary
By Kathleen LaCamera*
After he organized a districtwide mission presentation on Islam, the
Rev. Doug Smith heard from many appreciative audience members, who said
the evening helped them understand more about what ordinary Muslims
Smith, who serves four Methodist churches near the northwest England
city of Bolton, invited his friend and hospital chaplain colleague,
Moulana Faruk Ail, to talk to the group about how Muslims practice their
faith in everyday ways.
Smith and Ali hoped the event would help people build on the
religious similarities as well as appreciate the differences between
Islam and Christianity.
Arriving at his office the next morning, Smith was surprised to find
what he described as a "two-page, single-spaced diatribe" by a minister
from another denomination who said he was "staggered" by what he saw and
heard at Smith's church the evening before. Smith said the minister
mentioned a number of failings on Smith's part as a "shepherd" of his
congregation "who neither John Wesley nor Christ would be proud of."
The e-mail ended with the accusation that Smith had, in his "own
little way," eloquently promoted Islam as a religion of peace. The
critic didn't mean it as a compliment.
Commenting on the correspondence, Smith confessed, "Well, I don't get
hate mail every day." He decided to respond by "reminding our friend
For those involved at the "coal face" of interfaith work, this story
may not come as a surprise, but for those of us who are grateful to the
people who facilitate interfaith exchange and see understanding between
the faiths as key to a peaceful future, this story shocks and saddens.
So does the recent news that a Methodist church community in
Edinburgh, Scotland, has been a victim of racist graffiti and obscene
correspondence condemning the congregation for its good relationship
with the mosque next door.
Interfaith activities are no longer for the faint of heart, nor are
they marginal activities that go unnoticed at the fringe of our
The Rev. Jill Marsh leads two churches in Leicester, one of England's
most ethnically diverse cities. She believes that "if anything good
comes out of 7/7 (last year's London subway bombings) and 9/11, it is
the sense that the interfaith issue is more important and mainstream an
issue than people have tended to assume. … In the past, people felt it
was only people who lived in multi-faith areas who would be affected by
interfaith issues. There does seem more of a sense that this is an issue
The importance and risk of interfaith work is clearly in evidence.
Those who embrace this work and its huge challenges in Britain, in the
United States, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world deserve
our applause, our support, our prayers and our participation. This is
no longer (nor has it ever been) an optional activity for Christians.
Elizabeth Harris, secretary for interfaith relations for the
Methodist Church in Britain, has seen faith relations rise on the agenda
of the church's life in recent years.
"I believe there are tremendous challenges with the interfaith
agenda," Harris says. "I hope we have courage and discernment in this
area. Some of the issues are very complex, and there are no simple
one-line answers. We're in a challenging and exciting period."
Complex, challenging and exciting indeed is the interfaith project.
Full of risk — and worth it. We cannot afford to leave this essential
aspect of the life of faith to experts alone.
The Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, compels us to take those first
tentative steps in a risky interfaith journey. It recounts Jesus telling
the story of a man reaching out across a religious, cultural divide in
love to help a neighbor. This man, a Samaritan, rescues and looks after a
Jewish traveler who has been beaten by robbers and left bleeding at the
side of the road. He does this despite the traditional cultural and
religious enmity between the two men's communities.
The Good Samaritan is one of the first stories children learn in
Sunday school about what it means to be a Christian. Jesus uses the
story when underscoring the two key requirements of the life of faith:
love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
In verse 37 of chapter 10, Jesus concludes the story of the Good Samaritan with the words, "Go and do likewise."
So what are we waiting for? It's time to take those risks.
*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent and an ordained United Methodist
elder related to the New York Conference. She lives in England.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.