My home church recently hosted a summer-long series of guest speakers under the theme “Expanding Our Faith.” Eager to gain insights from other religious traditions, we invited a rabbi, an imam, a Zen Buddhist monk, and an indigenous storyteller to preach on four consecutive Sundays.
As chair of the planning team, I was intentional about creating welcome by translating our usual Christian-centric vocabulary into more accessible terms. Our team chose songs, wrote prayers and selected images for the program’s Powerpoint that reflected the speaker’s faith tradition. Yet I could not help but notice the giant cross which hangs in the front of our church, above the platform where our guests spoke. While the cross doesn’t normally catch my eye, on these Sundays it seemed to dominate the room.
In her book, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers provides strategies for ‘mainline’ (read: predominantly white, majority heterosexual) congregations who are seeking to welcome marginalized cultures and groups into their church. Spellers distinguishes between “inclusive” churches that practice incorporation and churches of “incarnation” who practice radical welcome. An inclusive faith community incorporates new marginalized members without modifying its core dominant cultural identity. As a result, marginalized people remain on the fringe and the congregation’s institutional structure remains unchanged. In a faith community that practices radical welcome, the community’s cultural identity(ies) shift to enable full expression of a range of voices and gifts to be present. The power structure of the community changes so that leadership reflects all voices within the community. Radical welcome transforms every aspect of the community’s life together.
Spellers cites Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook‘s study of multi-racial congregations. In her assessment of churches who struggled to become multiracial, Kujawa-Holbrook concludes that a core problem is that the church, while seeking to be “inclusive,” never addressed power. (Power is defined, in this context, as “the capacity of dominant (white) culture to have authority, control and influence over people of color.”) Spellers says “put bluntly, they didn’t sign on for that level of transformation. They didn’t open the door to share power” (68).
My church, the United Church of Christ, is passionate about racial justice. Our new General Minister and President John Dorhauer has prioritized anti-racism as one of the central tasks of his leadership. We are also one of the whitest and smallest Christian denominations in the United States, with a potent and problematic lineage back to pilgrims, those fervently God-fearing and genocidal invaders of the North American continent. Our denomination is majority white not on accident, but on purpose, from the earliest Congregational churches who defined religious conversion not only as changed belief and behavior but as adoption of European dress, speech, and culture, to the segregated African-American and white churches in our Southern conference that bear witness to slavery’s ongoing legacy.
When we talk about inviting more people of color into our congregation, we tend to focus on what we can do to be accessible and “welcoming,” what signs we can add to the building, what outreach events we might schedule. We rarely sign on for power sharing or a complete top-to-bottom transformation of congregational identity: after all, many of our churches have been around for hundreds of years. Congregational identity and a narrative of the local church’s place in a certain telling of American history is deeply ingrained.
In the same way, as we pursue engagements with other faiths, we strive to be welcoming and hospitable. We are courteous, work to pronounce unfamiliar names correctly, ask permission to take photographs. But we do not question how our way of being followers of Jesus, the ways we literally “do church,” inhibit our ability to communicate authentically with others. We defend ourselves: after all, we have the right to faithfully celebrate our own religious tradition. I shouldn’t feel uneasy about the cross hanging at the front of the building in a place where those who follow Jesus Christ gather.
But I wonder. I wonder because dominant white culture and dominant Christian culture are so interconnected as to be at times indistinguishable from one another. How hospitable can my church actually be to the indigenous leader whose grandfather was forced to attend a Christian missionary boarding school? How much respect can we offer to the imam whose people are targeted with hateful, anti-Muslim remarks in the grocery store next door (the one where we buy creamer for our coffee fellowship hour)?
What kind of justice work do Christians need to pursue in order to make authentic interfaith relationships possible?
Perhaps the example of inviting guest speakers into my Christian place of worship is disingenuous, for a neutral meeting place where many faiths gather would seem to offer more even ground. But…how many interfaith gathering places are neutral? In the city where I live, interfaith work is organized by an ecumenical council (a group of Christians) whose buildings, lands, etc. all play host to our multi-faith gatherings. When we gather, once a year, for Interfaith Advocacy Days, on the steps of our state capitol, I’m aware of the statues, memorials (even street names!) which pay tribute to ‘pioneer’ ancestors…those responsible for the plunder and desecration of indigenous holy places. There doesn’t seem to be any neutral territory outside the dominant white-christian-culture of our society.
Even when we gather in a more neutral place, consider the structure and order of our interfaith prayer services: we usually begin and end at an appointed time. We always have a printed program listing the speakers, which means that certain people must and do speak (and the audience does not generally interrupt). We use certain words, which are believed to be “common”: prayer, blessing, litany. This structure is not unique to Christianity, but it is definitely unlike the indigenous religious ceremonies that I have attended. When we gather to celebrate many faiths, we still structure our gathering using a dominant white-western-Euro-American cultural model that is especially conducive to Christianity.
In my work with Showing Up for Racial Justice (a group of white accomplices aligned with Black Lives Matter), we distinguish between multiculturalism and anti-racism. Multicultural efforts often manifest as a kind of smorgasbord of cultural diversity, while anti-racism seeks to embody active resistance to the hierarchy of cultures. Anti-racism seeks to dismantle the system that sets up one dominant culture to be host for the buffet of cultures whose dishes provide “flavor and spice,” the “exotic other” to the dominant “normal.”
How can our interfaith relationships be anti-racist rather than multicultural? While we pride ourselves on hearing and understanding one another, do we also notice whose vocabulary provides the scaffolding for the conversation? Who picks the terms, who decides what the words mean? Who determines who qualifies as a religion and gets a seat at the table? Perhaps authentic relationship only begins when we’re actively working to dismantle the systems of oppression that place Christianity as host at the table of faiths.
Image courtesy of mountpleasantgranary.net.