By Phil Washburn, Past President and IACO Council Member
I have had the pleasure of serving as a representative of the Christian tradition on the IACO Council for the past 6 years. My journey to getting involved in interfaith work has been a winding road, but one I have enjoyed and has shaped me immensely. I grew up in a conservative evangelical church and currently serve as an elder at a non-denominational evangelical church, one that conservatives consider too liberal, and liberals consider too conservative. I served as a pastor for 6 years before moving into non-profit community service. I was ordained by the Rio Grande Baptist Association, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention.
My first experience in interfaith work was when I served as representative for an evangelical Christian student organization on our university’s interfaith council as a student. Then while serving as an advisor and chaplain to Christian student organizations at another university, I also served on their interfaith council. Both of those experiences were crucial in my journey towards appreciating the diversity of religious perspectives and learning how to work together.
But more importantly, it has been the relationships that I have built over the years with folks from different faith traditions than my own which has been life changing. I am sure this is true for most religions, but I have found in Christianity that discussing beliefs in theory and putting those beliefs into practice in the real world are two very different things. It is through relationships that I have had to do the hard work of wrestling with what I was taught certain teachings meant and what it actually looks like putting those teachings into practice.
Many evangelical Christians are cautious, if not outright hostile, when it comes to interfaith work. Some of that comes from a healthy desire to protect dearly held beliefs and practices from compromise, something all faith traditions do at some level. But some comes from fear and misunderstanding. Because I took the time to build relationships, I had a different set of eyes when reading and considering the teachings of my faith.
One great example of this is in a reading of the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. This may be one of the more recognizable Biblical stories. For those who aren’t familiar with this story I will give a brief synopsis. Jesus was asked “who is your neighbor” in response to Jesus’s command to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus responded by sharing a parable about a man who was beaten, robbed and left for dead on the road. The man was passed by without assistance by two religious leaders, who used following the teachings of their religion as an excuse to not help. But a third person, a Samaritan, saw the man, stopped and cared for him, and left money to make sure the man made a full recovery. The implication of this story was that religious observance doesn’t supersede the simple act of caring for the needs of someone. The loving act was performed by the Samaritan. The profound thing about this story wasn’t just choosing to care for someone over following a religious teaching, the profound teaching came in who Jesus chose to use as the hero of the story, the Samaritan.
During the time of Jesus, Samaritans were people of a different faith tradition than the majority. Although rooted in similar history, Samaritans weren’t Jews, and it was taught that a good Jew wouldn’t interact with a Samaritan. Yet here we have Jesus using the example of a person from a different faith as an example of how one should live, even over the example of those from his own faith. To me this was a powerful example of how we can actually learn from and be challenged in our own faith by how people of another faith live.
My faith tradition teaches that everyone has failed in living the way we ought to when it comes to loving God and loving others. It also teaches that Jesus is the only way to fix that. But my faith tradition also teaches that how I love God is directly connected to how I love those I interact with throughout each day. As Jesus said, this is the greater teaching. I have been blessed to see people from various faith traditions caring for others selflessly, in the way they would care for themselves, and this has inspired me greatly in my own faith journey and attempts to put this into practice. I will be forever grateful for the relationships I have built through interfaith work which will always serve as an inspiration for me in my own faith.