Interfaith Spiritual Care: Pushing the Boundaries of Christian Ministry
I have served as Associate Chaplain at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth for about two years. I will be moving to Michigan shortly, so I have been reflecting on my experiences throughout my first ordained call to ministry. My passion, by the grace of God, for both interfaith cooperation and pastoral care led me to college chaplaincy. I figured the church was “too stuffy” for me, and in the University setting, I could really push the boundaries of interfaith dialogue and advocacy, and further, push the boundaries of who a Christian should be, and what Christian spiritual care looks like. So I became a chaplain at TCU. My responsibilities included: promoting interfaith cooperation and education on campus, creating spirituality programs, supervising non-Christian student groups like Hillel and the Muslim Student Association, and providing opportunities for students to advocate for social justice. I’m not sure how often a minister finds the perfect fit for their first call, but I did. And I am deeply grateful. But, let’s get back to that pushing the boundaries thing…
I am a progressive, down to my bones. I am adventurous and embrace, better yet, thrive in the arena of change (hopefully for good). It is tied to my call from God, one that is inherent in my being, to do justice and to care for all people. For me, inextricably bound together is doing interfaith dialogue, education, and advocacy work; and doing justice and caring for God’s oppressed, marginalized, and suffering children. This connection may not be readily apparent, so let me take a quick shot at explaining it.
The central movement of both social justice work (caring for all focusing on the macro, systems level) and spiritual care (caring for all focusing on the micro, individual level) is the breaking down of barriers that separate people from God, from love and each other, from resources needed for survival and good health, from freedom and opportunity, and from safety and peace. It could be argued that Jesus’ ministry focus was the breaking down of barriers that separate; namely, his radically inclusive, subversive acts of caring for prostitutes, tax-collectors, foreigners, and the non-religious or differently-religious, and his prophetic criticism of the religious institution. And for me, for the early 21st century, one of the largest mechanisms for separation (in all those ways listed above) is religious identity. Our religious climate in America and all over the world is akin to apartheid—we segregate based on religious preference, allocating resources to a privileged few or a particular group while simultaneously reinforcing disadvantage, poverty, prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry towards those who differ from the normative or particular religious group in power. And this separation not only disenfranchises the diverse religious groups, but it also negatively impacts the religious group in power. Without the knowledge, skill, and input from a diverse range of religious identities, how can our leaders solve the social justice problems of the diverse range of people throughout the community? And how can the leaders of the normative or particular religious group create just and appropriate policies for members of another religious tradition, whom they have never met and about whom they know very little? And furthermore, will not the ignorance and fear caused by the barriers create prejudiced and unjust policies and systems? And on a micro level, will not people that are disconnected and ignorant of the religious other tend to cultivate a posture of at best apathy, and at worst, fear and hate?
For example, on the macro level of religious injustice, Oklahoma lawmakers passed a bill with a seventy percent vote that would make illegal the practice and execution of Sharia (Muslim religious law). Lawmakers argued that Sharia threatened democracy. However, the Supreme Court blocked its legitimacy citing freedom of the practice of religion and its superfluity in the secular, political sphere (in other words, Sharia serves no more a threat to secular democracy than Christian or Jewish religious customs that many follow). Sharia is mostly concerned with personal religious observance. It also declares that Muslims must follow the law of the land, and also they must not impose Sharia on anyone. So why then did Oklahoma think it was such a threat? One word: prejudice. Effectively by overturning the vote, the Supreme Court concluded that lawmakers of Oklahoma are religious bigots. This is a prime example where religious separation led to bigotry, and the bigotry almost became law.
The Oklahoma Sharia Law illustrates how lack of interfaith cooperation, dialogue, understanding leads to injustice. And as a Christian minister, I am called to reverse this trend. At TCU, we hold large events to educate the TCU Community about different religions in hopes to cultivate understanding, respect, and cooperation. Our TCU Coexists event displayed interactive exhibits from many of the major world religions, including a hijab tying table wear non-Muslims were encouraged to wear a head scarf in an act of solidarity. Hopefully, this made an impact on campus to increase openness to religious diversity, and hopefully, this will impact our future leaders enough to avoid making bigoted decisions like the Oklahoma legislature.
While those campus-wide, macro events are important, I believe that it is in the one-on-one encounters that the greatest strides towards interfaith understanding and compassion can be achieved. And I would like to focus on a very unique example of this spiritual care, one which may only regularly be found in college and university settings.
I call it interfaith spiritual care. Normally, in a pastoral/spiritual care situation, a leader of a religious community (the pastor in a Christian church) engages in spiritual care with a member of that community who shares the same religious identity. However, in the University setting, due to various factors, Chaplains, like me, who do interfaith programming and advise non-Christian religious groups, have a uniquely valuable opportunity to do interfaith spiritual care.
While I am not suggesting that interfaith spiritual care should replace spiritual care by a leader in one’s own religious community, and while I am not suggesting that there aren’t inherent difficulties with interfaith spiritual care, I am suggesting that interfaith spiritual care should be a focus of Christian ministry in order to reverse the trend of bigotry and prejudice, and also it posits itself as a major source of spiritual transformation towards wholeness, individually and collectively. To illustrate interfaith spiritual care, I would like to tell a story of a conversation (and really a meaningful ongoing spiritual relationship) I had with one of TCU’s Muslim student leaders. I will call her B with respect to our ministerial contract.
B and I had the opportunity to attend Interfaith Youth Core’s (a Chicago based advocacy initiative that focuses on developing high school and college aged interfaith leaders) Whitehouse Interfaith Institute. Several hundred students and staff members from colleges around the country attended. On the flight to DC, B and I sat next to each other. For the next few hours, we had a deeply spiritual conversation.
B is originally from the West Bank in Palestine, moving here at a young age. Much of her family still resides in Palestine. On campus at TCU, she created many programs to raise awareness about the situation in Palestine and about Muslim’s everywhere. B was a very bright student, graduating from the Honors College with stellar grades. B and I had worked together on many projects with the Muslim Student Association, the Interfaith Community, and our hunger awareness group. Even though B attends a Mosque and has spiritual leaders in her own Muslim community, we developed a spiritual mentoring relationship.
B was a senior with only a few months until graduation. She voiced concerns to me about her next step—should she begin a graduate program in Middle Eastern studies, should she go to law school, or should she travel abroad? She had so many options, but was feeling stuck. She talked about how her parents were pressuring her attend law school for future financial stability. They discouraged all other options. She felt forced to go to law school, though her passion resided in the Middle Eastern studies program. I listened to her story, relating to the struggle a young adult experiences between pleasing their parents and following their own passions.
She then switched gears, and began talking about a similar struggle she was having with her religion. She said she was always worried she wasn’t doing enough to be a good Muslim. She lamented that she was spending so much time on school work, she had no time left for her religious life. She said, “Sometimes I don’t even remember to pray, and when I do, I’m just going through the motions. I just don’t like worrying about not being good enough. It’s exhausting.”
As she was saying this, many things were going through my mind. I saw the connection between her feeling obligated to follow the wishes of her parents and follow the rules of her religion. I noted the developmental task of moving from dependence to independence through individuating oneself from one’s parental/familial household. But I also thought about the differences in religion, culture, and situation. I was saddened to hear about the deep struggle she was experiencing. I wanted to tell her she should follow her own dreams after college. I wanted to tell her that religion is not about following rules, but about love and grace and transformation. But I didn’t. This was a complex situation. We believe in two different religions. Our families come from two different cultures. So I truly tried to listen to her. I tried to quiet my prejudices and give her the sacred gift of hearing what she was saying.
She continued exclaiming she felt a lot of pride and responsibility as one of the few Muslim’s at TCU. She said she felt that she needed to be a good example of Muslims, to show people that they are a beautiful community and a loving religion. Her hijab that she wore everyday was an outward symbol of her commitment to Allah and a reminder to herself that she always represented her religion. This motivated her to be the very best person she could be. She talked about how her prayer life was a daily reminder of the meaningful things in life and how it framed her everyday life in something sacred and eternal.
I listened. I thought to myself what a wonderful gift this was. How privileged I was to hear the deep thoughts, concerns, and beliefs of a young Muslim. How privileged I was, a Christian minister, to be seen as a spiritual mentor to her. Indeed, this was one of the greatest gifts I have received.
And further, I learned so much from her. I told her she reminded me how spiritual disciplines can invigorate one’s life with beauty and meaning. I told her how she reminded me how important it was to respect the wisdom of our elders and be deeply connected in our community. (I do have a tendency to be too individualistic). I told her she inspired me with her courage to live out her religion in a sometimes hostile American environment. (As a result of this conversation, I began praying more regularly and connected more deeply with family and friends.) I became more whole as a Christian and more whole as a person by deeply listening to a young Muslim woman.
I did finally respond to her about my concerns regarding pleasing her parents and also the guilt she was feeling about her daily spiritual disciplines. I framed it in my experiences of growing up, being her age, and my struggles with guilt in Christianity. However, I was deeply careful to identify the differences in religion and culture. I was careful not to project my biases upon her, but maintained there may be similarities to acknowledge that may provide some guidance.
I hope she became more whole as a Muslim and more whole as a person by listening to my stories about God’s irrevocable love and discerning our God-given vocation, even in the face of disapproval from family and friends. (She did make her own decision and attended the Middle Eastern Studies program, so I am going to assume I helped a little!).
Interfaith spiritual care, like my experience with B, is a magical thing. It’s a transformative thing. It might be the one thing that can reverse the cycle of religious bigotry and social injustice in our world. On the individual level, B and I learned from each other, we deepened our relationship, and became more fully human. But this encounter has much more far-reaching effects. It says something to our respective communities. It says that Muslims and Christians should deeply engage each other. It builds trust between our communities. It breaks down dangerous stereotypes. And, we mutually improve our respective communities through meaningful dialogue, each enriching the other, making both more complete. We broke down the walls that separate.
The Christian community is too concerned with the rules and boundaries required of a person to remain Christian. This religious identity pre-occupation approaches obsession. We have to believe this, and this, and this…(oh, and don’t forget this, this is a really important one). The list become so extensive that it creates a deep worry and anxiety in regards to fulfilling all the requirements (it is eternal salvation we are talking about here). It becomes so nerve-racking that we tend to error on the side of safety. This creates a certain isolation and stagnancy blocking us from new experiences, different beliefs, and transformation in general. How do we know if we learn about other religions and dialogue with non-Christians that we won’t begin believing things that will make us un-Christian? And plus, doesn’t surrounding ourselves with only “strong” Christians guarantee our development as “strong” Christians as well?
Sure, people of other religions hold different beliefs, but we must have enough faith in ourselves and our ability to discern what we believe in a complexity of possibilities. Plus, we need, as a church, to focus more on our relationships and our actions, rather than our beliefs. (We’ll save that complex conversation for another time). And sure, a community that shares traditions, beliefs, customs, and aspirations is important for support.
However, I argue, for our contemporary Christian Church and our Christian ministry that resides in an increasingly diverse religious environment (specifically spiritual care), encounters like I experienced with B should be our main concern. Our first and foremost priority must be breaking down walls that separate and lead to injustice. We must not be too scared to talk to the woman at the well or to the Samaritan. We must be willing to be changed, to be transformed, and to become more wholly human. We must be willing to welcome the complexity of stepping into the unfamiliar. We must be willing to risk the comfort of losing our present worldview. Only after we do this, will we, and our world, experience transformation, moving closer to peace and harmony. Our faith, hope, and love in God is and will be our grounding that helps us persevere and step out into the unknown, pushing the boundaries of Christian identity and spiritual care. Breaking down walls that separate by venturing into the unknown is, after all, at the heart of who Jesus was and is, and it is the reason we call ourselves Christians, today.
 Pastoral care tends to denote Christian spiritual care, derived from Judeo-Christian metaphor. For the purposes of this article, I will use spiritual care to denote the current interfaith context of its implementation.
 One factor is the historical Christian beginnings of private institutions of higher education. Many private schools began as missions of Christian churches, calling chaplains to serve as spiritual leaders to that special community. Many schools still retain this antiquated model, which provides exciting opportunities for Christian chaplains to do spiritual care with students of various religious backgrounds. While there exists better models for offices of Religious and Spiritual Life (hiring chaplains from many religious traditions), I believe, the interfaith spiritual care possibilities are a vital asset to the future of Christianity and all religious traditions.