Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Embracing Relgious Freedom

This week, my associate pastor, Christopher Eshelman and I co-authored an article on the controversy surrounding the Islamic Cultural Center two block from Ground Zero in New York City. Pastor Christopher did most of the writing, but we felt a joint statement was important for our congregation. I share it here, because I believe what we have to say as Christians matter.

As you probably know, people fleeing religious persecution in Europe founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One of Pastor Christopher’s favorite bits of American history is that what became Rhode Island was founded by people fleeing religious persecution… in Massachusetts. The struggle to realize the American ideal of religious freedom – and for whom – is nothing new. Right now the news is abuzz with “debate” over what should be a local zoning issue. Can a Mosque be built near Ground Zero? But that’s just the inflammatory headline – there is actually resistance to any mosque anywhere from groups like the American Family Association. Fear and distrust dominate the debate. One pastor in Gainesville, FL announced plans to burn Korans… once again religious freedom only matters for those who happen to agree with their definition of appropriate religion. There has also been news of the massacre of a group of medical missionaries in Afghanistan, in part because their murderers condemned them for “preaching Christianity.” Surely that justifies calls to prevent Islam from growing here…. We want to be clear. We disagree.

Pastor Christopher: What many of you may not know is that a major part of my experience of call to Christian ministry happened because of my positive interaction with members of the Islamic Society of Wichita. My encounters with them and their path helped me to rediscover, claim and journey on my own. I experienced God present in, with, and through that community and I give thanks for it. I believe God called me home through those interactions. I am to preach Christ, and him crucified – not to overcome these neighbors – but because this is my path, my tradition, my way of relating to God who is beyond all of our definitions. I believe God intends diversity. I believe it is we humans, not God, who turn that diversity into a sinful cause for hatred and exclusion. Certainly I have disagreements with some of what they teach, just as I do with what many different Christian groups teach. Yet if we embrace diversity, we can coexist and serve God well despite, or perhaps even better because of, our differences.

Pastor Cindy: While my journey is different than Pastor Christopher's my sentiments are the
same. As your representative to the United Methodist General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC) and as a member of the Board of Directors of Interfaith Ministries here in Wichita, I have a deep commitment to broadening our understanding and appreciation of other religions and branches within Christianity. "Perfect love casts out fear" and as a people that claim to follow Jesus, we are called to look at others with love, not fear. We are invited into deeper understanding as we dialogue about our differences.

The struggle is to not respond to hateful extremism by becoming hateful or extremist ourselves. We get many pictures of what Islam is – often dominated by terror and violence. Before any of us buy into and respond based on those images, this week we are encouraged to consider the dominant picture the world gets of Christianity from those same kinds of sources, whether it is Fred Phelps outlandish hatred, Pat Robertson calling a Hurricane God’s judgment, nooses on a sign at a rally or the tragic results of Timothy McVeigh’s affiliation with the “Christian Identity” movement. Do they represent our faith? We hope not. There are plenty who use our faith to condemn others and even justify violence, exclusion, and hatred. Those who engage in their faith to become better people, caring neighbors, servants of God and community are quite different from those who engage in religion to control, gain power, condemn others, and elevate themselves. The line distinguishing the two has nothing to do with what name we use for God, when, where or how we worship, and what tradition we call home.

During this season of Ramadan, we wish our Muslim friends and neighbors well, and we would be happy to chat with any of our Christian friends about why we do so. Peace be upon us all.

Graced to Serve,
Pastors Cindy & Christopher


  1. What are your thoughts on St. Nicholas, the Greek Orthodox Church that was denied its right to rebuild? It was the only church destroyed during the attack.
    Also, do you think a casino should be built close to the Gettysburg Battlefield?

  2. Maggie, I believe St. Nicholas should be allowed to rebuild. I think the casino is comparing apples to oranges. Casino's are for-profit enterprises, while a Islamic Cultural Center and a Church are non-profits used for education, edification and worship.