How Do We Respect Different Faiths?

Faced with the need for a mixture of clergy trained in several traditions to serve a very diverse clientele in the military, in hospitals and in prisons, these institutions have developed a form of ministry in which the caregiver assumes different roles and uses different pastoral "languages" as she or he ministers to parishioners from traditions which might be different from the caregiver's. This requires the caregiver to become flexible in approach while maintaining his or her own tradition and unique relationship to the numinous.

Chaplaincy Style of Ministry

Consequently a Roman Catholic priest may be called on to lead a ritual or speak a prayer appropriate to the tradition of a Muslim, an evangelical Protestant, or a Buddhist all within a few minutes while never losing his center in his own unique relation to God. This should never mean that a chaplain has reduced spirituality but that the chaplain has gone beyond a limited set of metaphors and has become comfortable with the God who lives behind the words. When this understanding of relatedness becomes a reality the caregiver may find that her or his own spirituality is not "watered down" but deepened and moved from traditional formulations to living reality.

At Café Pride we aren't interested in converting young persons to any one tradition but we do attempt to "convert" them to ways of seeing themselves relating to the numinous, to neighbors, to the past and future, and to themselves that is healthy and life giving. This is a kind of healthy spirituality that can exist in almost any religious tradition or system of belief. We are very much about conversion, but not as it is traditionally understood as proselytizing, but as a way of converting persons from self-hatred and alienation from God to reconciliation with God and self.

Don't Preach or Lecture, Listen and Discuss

Our style of outreach can be characterized by practicing friendship rather than preaching, correcting, condemning, or even approving or endorsing. If Mr. McCluhan was correct and the "medium is the message," what are we choosing to say? I suggest that our actions will be our message. Our words will be so much background noise except as they reinforce our actions or as they make us look foolish as they contradict our actions.

If we're staffing the Café as friends and not as authorities, how should we act? Here's a short list.

  1. Don't tell anyone how to get his or her life together. If you have it all together, all of us will sit at your feet and listen to discover the wisdom you have to offer. Then we'll kill you. Friends disagree, friends argue, friends tell one another how they'd do something different. However, few persons enjoy "friends" who know all the answers and consider their advice above discussion.
  2. Listen and help your friend hear back what they are saying to you. There is a big difference between listening passively and the kind of engaged and passionate listening that good friends exercise.
  3. Be willing to disagree and challenge. There's a proverb in the Hebrew Scripture that is translated, "As iron sharpens iron so a friend sharpens the countenance of a friend." A good animated discussion is not the same as telling someone how to get her or his life together. In the best of all possible worlds you will be changed as much as any of the young people whom you challenge. If you leave Café Pride with none of your ideas challenged, you probably didn't listen enough.
  4. Take their felt needs seriously not just their "real" needs. You may know that what a certain young person needs is to get more secure housing. However, if that youth wants to talk about his boyfriend, shut up and listen. You may eventually bring up what you see as the "real" issue but let the youth lay out the felt or "presenting" issue first.

Chaplaincy as we practice it is more than telling a person what tradition we belong to and how that tradition views the topic at hand. Chaplaincy means listening and figuring out what religious language the parishioner is speaking and trying to converse in that language. If you'll let me extend the metaphor, if someone starts to speak to you in Spanish, listen and respond in Spanish or find someone who can or find another way to communicate. Don't insist that only English can be used to communicate complex truths or that the person share your love of Shakespeare and Milton before you discuss what is before you. The important thing is relationship not language, metaphor, or tradition. Don't be so eager to make a convert until you've first made a friend.

Determining the Health of Religious Systems and Their Parishioners

However, we do not concede that all religious systems are alike or that all should be treated as acceptable. There are four questions that each of us needs to ask of any philosophical or religious system (and how the individual uses it) to determine whether or not the system is a good one and whether or not the person in that tradition (the parishioner) is spiritually healthy.

  1. How does the parishioner relate to __________? (God, Allah, The Universe, The Numinous, Nature) Does the system lock folks into using negative images of relationship--sinner, victim, hopeless, stupid, bastard, outcast? Does the system allow or encourage the use of positive relationships--child of God, forgiven, redeemed, elect, favored one, intelligent? Some of these relationships are metaphysically determined and some are the result of some physical, social, mental, or class distinction.
  2. How does the parishioner relate to community? Does the parishioner identify with a religious tradition? Does she or he regularly worship/meet with a community of that tradition? (Roman Catholics who haven't been to mass in five years are receiving none of the support of that community. They need to be assessed in terms of what they remember and maintain from that community, not on the community as it truly is.) Does the parishioner accept the positive and negative reinforcements from that religious community? Does the parishioner accept the positive and negative reinforcement of the larger community? (This includes but is not limited to the secular community as experienced in the media, workplace, school, gang, or other dominant religious traditions in the neighborhood.) The values and mores of a youth are not dictated solely by where he or she was baptized. There is a distinction between church theology and popular theology. They often differ widely. Usually popular theology is much less healthy than official denominational teachings.
  3. How does the parishioner relate to the past and future? Does she or he have a way of relating to the past in religious sacraments or memorial observations? Is there a way for past regrets and shames to be reconciled, atoned, or forgiven? Does the parishioner live only for the moment with no regard for the past or future? Is there a way to heal the past and improve prospects for the future?
  4. How does the parishioner relate to self? Are negative messages from the religious tradition challenged or internalized? Are positive messages from the tradition utilized and encouraged? Is the individual in the process of challenging circumstances and assumptions regarding sexual orientation, parentage, race, class, and gender, which exist in this culture? All healthy persons find it essential to be in a constant state of battle with negative images that exist in the world and usually in our traditions. None of us, no matter what our religious tradition, age, race, class, or whatever, can be spiritually healthy except as we engage in a constant state of wariness rejecting destructive messages, and negative images.

Evangelism That Is More Than Proselytizing

There is a reason that in an earlier time popular theologians and preachers declaimed against "the World, the Flesh, and the Devil." The temptations we face, the turmoil we endure, and the pain we experience in our hearts and souls is not merely an attack by some personification of evil in a red suit. Each of us feels pain from a world that is always finding some reason to disqualify us. It is hard to imagine a world where persons would not be valued differently because of arbitrary standards of beauty, possessions, or heritage. Beyond even the obvious stereotypes of race, gender, and orientation, we are belittled for not being desirable to whomever is on top of the soapbox today. How much can you bench press? What are your cholesterol numbers? Where do you live? Do you rent or own?

And then there is the regular attack of the flesh, not just the sins often known as carnal, but the recognition that our bodies are weak, weary, and wasting. If we depend on the "arm of flesh," we shall always discover failure and destruction. The recognition that death is the end event of all life is not only a pain for the old or sick. All of us at sometime or other will face the pain of mortality--the disappointment of an unavoidable appointment with decay; disease; and, finally; death.

The evangelism we try to practice at Café Pride is more than trying to gain members for any one church or tradition. It is an attempt to counteract the destructive messages that flourish around us--messages that tell young people gay or straight that they are only valuable if they possess some kind of unattainable beauty, pedigree, and wealth. Healthy religious traditions not only prepare us for the attacks of a pitchfork-wielding demon but from these prejudices of an inhospitable world and from the ever-present disappointments of mortality.

Stu Smith

Adapted from "Chaplaincy Style of Outreach," Café Pride Volunteer Resource Guide. Copyright © Pride Ministries, 1998. All rights reserved.

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