Interfaith Engagement: A Path to Religious Leadership

Managing Director’s Note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

Interfaith engagement can be more than just a goal for emerging religious leaders, it can be the path itself. I have been shaped at key moments on my journey towards becoming a rabbi by encounters with people from other religious traditions, and at each turn I have only been enriched by them.

During college I studied in Guatemala for a semester, where I did field research in a community of poor Catholics who had organized themselves out of a slum and into their own thriving neighborhood. Their story continues to be the most remarkable example of grassroots social change I have ever encountered. Through petitions, media advocacy, and civil disobedience they departed their disease- and crime-ridden shantytown, planted themselves on a plot earmarked for military officers’ homes, and won, against the government’s wishes, all the services of a functioning neighborhood: water, electricity, a school, a market, and eventually recognition of their legal status as owners of their lots. What set this community apart from so many others who had met with less success were the framework and communal bonds provided by their faith. In my dozens of conversations with grassroots leaders, they all spoke in the same terms: the slum they left was “Egipto;” their new community, “la tierra prometida;” their midnight journey between the two and crossing of a police cordon, their “éxodo.” They knew that God loved them, wanted a better life for them, and was on their side. They had organized themselves from the beginning through their church, were guided by priests along the way, and continued to base their organizing in their new parish.

Me and Jorge Ibarra, a parish leader since the beginning in the organizing effort in Villalobos II, Guatemala City, and my main contact in the neighborhood, standing in the courtyard of his home. Like all homes in the neighborhood, Jorge's house was constantly under construction as money and supplies became available.
Me and Jorge Ibarra, a parish leader since the beginning in the organizing effort in Villalobos II, Guatemala City, and my main contact in the neighborhood, standing in the courtyard of his home. Like all homes in the neighborhood, Jorge’s house was constantly under construction as money and supplies became available.

For me, as a young American Jew, this encounter with Guatemalan Catholics was a seminal experience. In many ways, my career since then has been an exploration of how religion can be such a powerful force for social change in communities closer to home. Yet while a parish on the outskirts of Guatemala City may seem like a faraway place for a Jew from California, what I found there was remarkably familiar. Their story – the Exodus – is also my Jewish story. They were living out the potential that I and so many contemporary Jews see in our tradition’s central narrative. I had traveled “beyond the sea,” as the Torah says, only to find what was already “very near” to me, already “in [my] heart,” which enabled me to begin to truly “observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:13-14).

Since then, organizing with Protestants and Catholics has taught me not only about their faiths, but more about my own. Praying in a mixed group of Sufis and Jews, I have glimpsed oneness through multiplicity, a core lesson of both our traditions. I have many rabbis for role models, but I also count a priest, a pastor, and an imam among my inspirations for becoming a rabbi. It is thanks to my relationships with all these people – including Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims – that I have become the Jew I am.

Both photos are courtesy of the author.
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One thought on “Interfaith Engagement: A Path to Religious Leadership

  1. Great article, Josh. It’s always good to hear another story about the inspiring role faith can play in social transformation and I love your use of the verse from Deuteronomy.

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