How generosity, hospitality, and presence can change the narrative on interfaith work
It was my sophomore year of college, and I was booking bands at a little coffeehouse called Java 101. One day, I received a call from a local Southern Baptist pastor, who asked if his church could host their staff’s annual Christmas party at the coffeehouse. I thought, “This is a bit unconventional…but sure, I guess.” Then he asked me, “Do you play an instrument? We’re looking for someone to play Christmas songs for the party.” Now, I also happened to play guitar, and I was 197.6% broke, so I said, “Sure!”
You know, how bad could it possibly be?
So the day comes, and the Pastor, a burly old gentleman by the name of Dan Stovall, strolls into the coffeehouse in a full blown Santa suit—complete with hat, beard, and a sack of presents—with about 15 church members in tow.
After fumbling through about 45 minutes of Christmas songs as fast as I possibly could (it wasn’t my best work), Pastor Dan hands me a check for $500! I was totally surprised. Then, on top of that, he offered me a job at his church, where I worked until I graduated.
What captivated me about Pastor Dan is that he believed conservatively, but he loved liberally. He recently retired after pastoring Sycamore Baptist Church for over 30 years, and he now runs Perpetual Amity, a nonprofit that provides free furniture for international students at Northern Illinois University.
What captivated me about Pastor Dan is that he believed conservatively, but he loved liberally.
Fast forward to the summer after my sophomore year, when my girlfriend of two years broke up with me. It was a pretty dark season in my life, and it was right about the time I met Derek Joseph. Derek was a staff member with CRU, a Christian group on campus. After the breakup, I was kind of a mess. But Derek took me out for Chinese food every week to talk about God, the universe, and everything. It really surprised me that Derek was so generous with his time, and that he was willing to spend it with me. Never in my life had I experienced that kind of care from another human being.
You see, I learned how to be an evangelical Christian under the care of these two men, who continually surprised me with their generosity, their hospitality, and their presence.
In 2015, I was a graduate student at Wheaton College, which is sometimes called the flagship evangelical college in America. A popular political science professor by the name of Dr. Larycia Hawkins wore a hijab to show solidarity with Muslim women during the Advent season, and snapped a picture of herself with the words, “Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” What came next was a very public fallout between the college and Dr. Hawkins, sparking divisions all over campus in residence halls and shouting matches in faculty meetings. Donors on both sides of the debate threatened to pull funding; there were petitions, protests, and press conferences.
As a student in the theology department, I expected that there would be opportunities in class to talk about Dr. Hawkins’ statements. But I was really surprised when that didn’t happen. One of my professors barely grazed the issue and quickly moved on. I was surprised that there was so little reflection on how the incident might be seen through the eyes of our local Muslim neighbors, and how we could care for them during this polarizing time on campus.
In our nation’s current moment, I am surprised and frankly sickened by what some self-avowed evangelical pastors are preaching from their pulpits and writing on social media about Muslims. Ironically, I’ve been starting to wonder if these pastors and I worship the same God.
These trends are what led me to start my organization, Neighborly Faith. Our mission is simple: we want evangelical Christians to be known as the most loving, generous, and self-sacrificial members of our society. If you think this is a tall order, you’re right.
As an evangelical interfaith leader, I am continually asking myself, how can I surprise my neighbors of other faiths? How can I surprise people like Dan Stovall and Derek Joseph surprised me—like Jesus surprised me—through the actions of these godly men? This is the evangelical tradition I was brought up in.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by “surprise.” Recently, I invited two mosques in the Raleigh area to have dinner at my church. My church meets at a small conservative Christian school. Most of my church members have never met a Muslim, and have virtually no idea what Muslims actually believe. My friend Sabina, who represented one of the mosques, said they’d be fine with veggie pizzas. But I insisted to my pastors that we ignore this request. Instead, our church spent upwards of $700 ordering from a favorite local Middle Eastern restaurant.
Something I will never forget is the look on our Muslim friends’ faces when they saw all of the food we ordered: chicken shawarma, chicken and beef kabobs, gyros, greek salad, hummus, and even falafel (for some reason). They kept saying, over and over again, how surprised and grateful they were that we did this for them. This gesture laid the groundwork for some incredible conversations that evening.
At our weekly Bible Study a few days later, my friend Kristen mentioned that she really didn’t want to go to the dinner. She dragged herself there because she was my friend. But she couldn’t stop talking about how much she loved it. She said, “I was so surprised that they were so open to talking about faith, and even talking about Jesus.”
When we started Neighborly Faith, one leader of a large interfaith organization told us that it would be a waste of our time. He said, “I will be frank and up front: I wouldn’t put energy into it, and didn’t offer encouragement to you, precisely because I feel that you are bailing water when there is a hole in the ship.”
Now, five years later, I have so many stories like my friend Kristen’s. Cody Beasley, one of our Neighborly Faith fellows grew up in a Christian home school and now attends a conservative Southern Baptist Seminary. When Cody interviewed for the fellowship, let’s just say we had our doubts—and we didn’t accept him. But when one of our fellows had to drop out, we decided to give him a chance. And here’s something Cody recently wrote in an OpEd:
When I first learned about pluralism, I immediately became defensive. I assumed it was nothing more than moral relativism. But I learned that pluralism addresses some of the most difficult questions that face our nation by advocating for human beings on the basis of the image of God and love of neighbor. The image of God compels me to listen to and understand someone’s worldview without devaluing their personhood—not because all truth claims are equal, but because all people are. If I neglect the basic dignity of a person based on their religious convictions, then I have violated the created order that God has ordained. People embody the ideals of pluralism when they treat fellow humans with respect and dignity; listening to and learning from the viewpoint of the “other”—whether they are a Democrat, Republican, Muslim, or Jew.
Believe me when I say that if Cody can embrace pluralism, any evangelical can.
I recognize that for some, they’ve been tempted to give up on evangelicals, and for good reason. I’m not trying to defend the hurtful things that my community has done.
But my prayer is that in the coming year, our neighbors would be open to being surprised again. In some ways, I think the success of true interfaith work relies on our willingness to be surprised by those with whom we deeply disagree, even when our society tells us to give up on them. Imagine if Kristen decided not to show up to our dinner. Imagine if we had never changed our minds about Cody becoming one of our fellows.
…the success of true interfaith work relies on our willingness to be surprised by those with whom we deeply disagree.
When we’re no longer open to being surprised, that is when our interfaith work is no longer surprising—or frankly, even compelling—to anyone. That is when we reinforce the stereotype that interfaith groups are echo chambers.
Students like Kristen and Cody are the future leaders of the evangelical movement, and the future looks incredibly bright. My prayer is that the evangelicals in churches and neighborhoods across America would begin to surprise their neighbors of other faiths, the way Pastor Dan and Derek surprised me. And my ask is that our neighbors would give us the chance to do so.
Kevin Singer is Co-Founder/Director of Neighborly Faith, an organization dedicated to helping evangelicals to be good neighbors to people of other faiths. This was presented at the Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago, IL on Saturday, August 3rd 2019.