Even before I became a member of the Interfaith and Ecumenical Task Force Team, I noticed that some of the most difficult times for Christian witness are when we see our interfaith and ecumenical neighbors attacked or hurt. Sometimes the incidents occur right in our own town: church fires, LGBTQ hate crimes, or painted swastikas. Sometimes the incidents occur far away but still directly or indirectly painfully impact communities of faith in our backyard. In either case our neighbor’s pain and our pain mingle in the moment. We want to do something, but we struggle with the right actions for each neighbor, each tragedy, and each community.
In December 2018 we members of the Interfaith and EcumenicalTask Force Team began to discuss a March Super Saturday workshop entitled “Supporting Interfaith and Ecumenical Partners During Challenging Times.” It was less than two months after the Tree of Life shootings in Pittsburgh. By then we all had experience planning and participating in worship services, vigils, marches, and many other big and small acts of support, healing, and caring after hate crimes, shootings, disasters, defacement of property, etc. During the last three years, we have regularly discussed our own good and bad experiences of times when caring people had reached out to their neighbors. We have been inspired by stories and cautioned and informed by the struggles and missteps that occurred. So we chose to develop the workshop as a panel of people who have done this work and experienced those struggles and missteps. We were ready to share information we knew would help congregations across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
And then on March 15th, the Christchurch mosque shootings occurred. Just one day before our workshop, we were reminded once more how critical this work is in our world today. We wish everyone could have heard directly from our panelists: Rev. Angela Wells-Bean of United Church of Christ Congregational Burlington, Rev. Dr. Debbie Clark of Edwards Church UCC Framingham and the Open Spirit Center, Rev. Norm Bendroth, Interim Pastor of First Baptist Church Wakefield, and Rev. Marisa Brown-Ludwig, First Church of Christ Longmeadow. They told of scrubbing hateful words off of Mt. Tom, working with a rabbi to provide the right support to a conservative Islamic Center, writing letters to their own congregations, listening to an exhausted rabbi’s true needs, and the sharing of comfort through Teddy bears and lighting candles.
We offered the workshop because we know that bad things will continue to happen and we will need to and want to respond. Yet, the good news that emerged clearly from our workshop and which we on the task team have experienced directly, is that beautiful and enriching relationships develop and grow through thoughtful, responsive efforts. Communities can transcend hateful acts or tragedies. And especially in this time when relationships and communities are becoming more diverse, we all benefit by the respectful, loving, and supportive relationships we hold with all of our neighbors through the good and bad times.
Out of our panelists’ insights and the discussions with the attendees, we fashioned the following “Seven Best Practices for Supporting Interfaith and Ecumenical Partners in Challenging Times”, and offer it here. It is also available on our web pages along with other resources here. May all of us be blessed with deep and mutually supportive and enriching relationships with our neighbors.
Seven Best Practices for Supporting Interfaith and Ecumenical Partners in Challenging Times
Develop relationships with the faith communities around you. Don’t wait until a time of crisis. Support will be most effective coming from within an existing relationship in which you: trust each other, have some familiarity with the culture of the community, understand each other’s faith stories, and are acquainted with the sacred spaces and services.
Suggestions on how to do this:
Participate in interfaith councils and clergy groups.
Go meet your neighbors – “knock on the door” and introduce yourself, become “Facebook friends,” invite people to join you for coffee or tea.
Learn about and participate in interfaith and ecumenical worship and justice activities and initiatives in your area.
Create opportunities for community members of all ages to get to know each other and hear each other’s stories.
Publicize Iinterfaith and ecumenical opportunities like Daughters of Abraham groups.
At the time of a crisis, begin by listening to the affected community or congregation. Make sure the community you are trying to support gets to lead and make decisions.
Speak directly to a leader.
Ask questions about what is needed and what is wanted. Humbly listen to the answers and find ways to honor them.
Don’t rush to action. Be willing to step back and wait for direction.
Be willing to reword statements and re-plan activities.
Honor concerns expressed about worship traditions and times including seating and parking issues.
Remember that each congregation or small faith community is unique and with its own culture and particular traditions. Don’t try to generalize or assume. Groups have their own particular ways of reacting to a crisis and keeping to their own traditions. Some groups need to turn inward and some appreciate an outward expression. There are unique traditions around food and worship. What will meet the needs of one congregation or group will be wrong for another.
Do the simple caring, loving, human actions you would do for any neighbor in a time of challenge.
Send a card or letter.
Offer food (just be mindful of dietary restrictions).
Call your friends and leave a message.
Pay attention to the pain and grief in yourself and your congregation and minister to it. You and others in your congregation are also hurting. Some of you are grieving very personally within close relationships. Some are grieving out of human compassion.
Take some time to breathe.
Examine your own and other’s motives and notice unhelpful behaviors that may be responses to the pain: rushing to immediate action, not wanting anyone to talk about it, pushing a particular effort even when the affected community doesn’t want it, etc.
Find ways to redirect what is unhelpful and run interference.
Develop symbolic actions to relieve grief within your own community: lighting candles, signing a card, etc.
Reach out to individuals who are acting out.
Include the children and youth – they too will have heard something and may have friends directly affected. Talk to them and their parents and create activities they can participate in.
Faith leaders should lead their congregation in responding.
Name what is going on.
Offer ways to frame the situation including within your own sacred stories and scriptures and ways to respond. Some ways include writing a pastoral letter to the congregation and using the children’s sermon.
Model and name appropriate behaviors.
Share what you and others are doing to support: take pictures and publicize them.
Lift up the relationships you and others have developed and ways you have been enriched.
Don’t forget: As with any grief, the ripples of a challenging situation continue to impact for a long time.
It can be fine to wait a bit to respond – a month or even six months later your action may have even more weight.
Pay attention when planning future ecumenical and interfaith events. Talk explicitly about expectations. People may still have raw emotions or have particular concerns. For example an interfaith candle lighting ceremony might be a problem for a congregation whose building has burned down.
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