Interfaith Dialogue (and Trialogue)

February 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Holy Conversation (Feb/Mar/Apr 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

When I grew up in Panola County, Texas, I knew no Jews and no Muslims. However, when I was a student at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., two of my favorite professors were Drs. Bruno and Bertha Strauss. Both had been professors at the University of Berlin, but they had been dismissed when the Nazis came to power because they were Jews. After the horrible night of Kristallnacht, they could see that things were only getting worse. They spent everything to have themselves and their young son smuggled out of Germany to England where they caught a ship to New Orleans and a train to Shreveport. The president of our United Methodist college asked the two of them to become professors. They taught the history of Western civilization, Russian history, and the history of Nazism.

The Drs. Strauss taught a predominately Christian student body five days a week, and went to synagogue every Friday night. I knew that God had never revoked his covenant with them and I resolved to do whatever I could the rest of my life to strengthen our Jewish-Christian relationships. Over the years, I have been involved in a number of dialogue groups that have read dozens of books together, which prompted me to believe I needed to see the concentration camps where outstanding Christians were confined and more than six million Jews died. My wife, Gayle, and I have been to Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrueck, and Flossenburg. My personal commitment to do everything possible to increase understanding between Christians and Jews has played an important role in my ministry.

In the communities where I have been a pastor, I have first sought existing groups that were working towards similar goals. For example, Tulsa, Okla., had one of the finest National Conference of Christians and Jews organizations in the United States. When that national group imploded over financial difficulties, our branch reorganized as the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice. I have been involved with that group all thirty years I have been pastor of the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa. I became Chair of the Board of that group on September 1, 2001. Ten days later, the towers went down in New York City. It was a difficult two years to be Chair, but our efforts to bring Jews, Christians, and Muslims together in meaningful “trialogue” certainly played an important role in our city and our state.

Nurturing Trialogue

We began a three-week trialogue event every winter, and now we have trialogue opportunities for senior high youth as well. Simply being present is so important when cultivating these interfaith relationships. I am part of one interfaith group that has met together one Wednesday afternoon every month for more than twenty-five years. As some have died or moved away, others have been invited to take their places. One cannot sit and talk with other human beings one afternoon every month for more than twenty-five years without coming to know the other people who sit at the table.

Being educated about the other faiths is also essential. Misinformation leads to distrust and impedes true understanding. Every year, Temple Israel brings to our community one of Judaism’s best known scholars. That scholar spends Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with the Jewish community. Then, on Monday, other clergy are invited to come and hear that speaker and dialogue with her or him. It has done much to create deeper and better understandings.

A beloved Lutheran pastor in our community, Clarence Knippa, retired after many years as pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church. He had been a pioneer in dialogue and then a faithful participant in trialogue. His congregation honored him by endowing an annual lectureship to bring to Tulsa some of America’s best known and most respected speakers on interfaith understanding. In January 2011, our speaker was the head of the Islamic Society of North America, a Canadian woman who is giving outstanding leadership to Islamic understanding in Canada and the United States.

Our Faith Club

Shortly after the tragic events of 9/11, three women in New York City decided they did not know enough about each other. One is a Muslim, one is a Jew, and one is a Christian. They decided to have coffee with each other and discuss who they are as women of faith. Their faithful visiting with each other produced a book called The Faith Club. We brought these three women to our church, where 1,500 people gathered to hear their presentation. It was a wonderful evening and received widespread media coverage in the local newspapers and on all the major television stations.

A committee at our Boston Avenue Church decided to see if they could replicate what had happened in the forming of The Faith Club. Our Jewish Temple and Synagogue and the Islamic Society of Tulsa were all asked to recruit couples to participate in what we were calling Open Tables. The first attempt resulted in fourteen groups being formed, each with one Jewish couple, one Muslim couple, and one Christian couple—agreeing to have three meals together; one meal in the home of each couple. There was no formal agenda, simply an attempt to have three couples from the three Abrahamic faiths trying to get to know each other better. Those fourteen groups were so successful that the next attempt resulted in seventeen groups, and has now expanded to a total of 270 people participating.

Any Christian group that sincerely accepts the covenant that the other two groups have with God can find persons from the Jewish community and Islamic community who are eager to enter into trialogue with them. If there is no proselytizing but a genuine desire to understand and appreciate the faith commitment of the others, meaningful trialogue can occur.

Those who criticize our efforts say that we must compromise our own faith in order to enter into this type of trialogue. That is absolutely false. Those of us who have worked in this field for many years know that we need the most faithful Christians we can find at the table. We need the most observant Jews we can find at the table. We need the best Islamic persons we can find at the table. One group is not trying to convert the other. All three groups are trying devoutly to understand and have further appreciation for the other. My congregation feels this is one of the most meaningful and significant contributions we have made to our city and to our state.

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