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Commentary: Interfaith work is a risk worth taking

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Kathleen LaCamera

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 believe.

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 about love."

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 religious life.

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 of importance."

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

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