One of my commitments with the United Churches of Lycoming County is to participate in regular interfaith panel discussions in a Williamsport middle school health class. The panel usually consists of representatives of various traditions: Christianity (usually with both Protestant and Catholic representation), Judaism, and Islam. The premise is for us to field questions about the positions of each of our traditions on topics that the students have learned about in class. As the teacher explains to them, our goal is not to tell them what to believe but to educate them about what some of the world’s religions believe.
Occasionally, the questions can be a little more general, which is allowed within the ground rules of the session. The other day, a student asked just such a general question about the origins of each of our traditions. I suspect that some of the students were surprised to learn that all of the faiths represented by our panel were, as our Catholic representative put it, “cousins.” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their roots to Adam and Eve, as well as God’s promises to Abraham.
Now, you don’t have to sit in on one of our panels to know that there are divergent beliefs and practices among us. We wouldn’t have evolved into three separate religions if that were not the case. But our three faiths share a lot in common nonetheless. For example, the belief that God calls us to love our neighbor (or more specifically, our fellow human beings), is paramount in all three traditions. In fact, even most of the faiths that would not be considered “cousins” to our three also share this expectation that we should treat our fellow human beings with love, care, and respect.
This commonality is the main reason I find doing these panels (as well as interfaith work in general) to be so important. We are not just educating the young people in our community about some of the teachings of our respective faith traditions; we are showing them that we can coexist and even cooperate in spite of our differences, a skill that seems to be in short supply these days.
Some would say that all religions are, at their heart, essentially the same. I am not one of those people. As a Christian, I believe some things that other faiths reject, and vice versa. Even though I am committed to interfaith work, I will not surrender or relinquish those beliefs and teachings that make me a Christian.
One of those teachings, however, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told that parable, which is about someone who gave aid to a person in need while others passed him by, as a demonstration of the love we are to show our neighbors. But here’s the thing: the Samaritan was neither Christian (no one would have been until after Jesus’ resurrection) nor was he Jewish. In teaching about loving one’s neighbor, the role model of Jesus’ story was someone outside of his own faith tradition.
Christians should learn about the specifics of their faith from the Bible, just as Jewish people should from the Torah and Muslims from the Qur’an. But it is, in fact, possible that we can learn how to love our neighbors from one another.
As the teacher who hosted our interfaith panel said, “They may disagree, but they are still friends.”
The Interfaith Dialogue Commission (a ministry of United Churches of Lycoming County) sponsors the school panels as well as offering opportunities for interfaith understanding. We have started a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/idclycoming) that at the moment is in need of more participation. All are invited to like the page and join the conversation.
-Rev. Jeffrey L. LeCrone, Pastor, St. Luke Lutheran Church Chair, Interfaith Dialogue Commission (United Churches of Lycoming County)