The Importance of Interfaith Engagement

In an age of globalization and massive migration, religious radicalism across the world has been increasing over the last half-century.   Religious persecution is a world-wide human rights crisis, and even religions once claimed as most peaceful have resorted to authoritarianism and violence to commit violence against others.  In our own nation, for instance, so-called “Christian nationalism” is a radicalizing factor that has perpetuated centuries of western, religious-motivated violence in recent years. 

The need for building interfaith bridges–intentionally and thoughtfully–is needed now more than ever. Peacemaking can no longer happen on the sidelines.

My own interfaith work, spanning over a decade, is bound up with my religious upbringing and experience.  My parents moved from the Catholic Church to a Protestant one when I was born in New York. Later, upon moving to Florida, we attended a Southern Baptist church and then made our way to a Calvary Chapel led by a Cuban pastor.  From there, in high school and the wake of Hurricane Andrew, we moved to Coral Springs, where I attended a multicultural, charismatic Presbyterian church in Pompano Beach.  It was there that I was baptized, got married, and responded to a call in full-time ministry.

My multicultural, multiethnic, multi-Christian upbringing gave me a hunger to learn about the faiths of others.  In college at Palm Beach Atlantic University, the college hosted Jewish-Christian dialogues with synagogues in Palm Beach.  This exposure showed me the importance of interfaith immersion as a way to learn about one’s own faith and to understand the faith of others.  I learned the importance of “faith seeking understanding” by befriending people of other faiths and listening to their faith stories just as much as I wanted to share my own faith story. I took a class by one of the rabbis on the land and history of Israel, a truly eye-opening experience.

In my first year of seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, terrorists crashed planes in the Twin Towers, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.  The religious landscape in America changed abruptly, and we saw an escalation of violence primarily focused on Muslim populations in the nation, especially in the South.  Antisemitism also increased in the wake of this event.

As a result, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, to which I subscribed, formed an Interfaith Task Force with leaders from the Smoke Rise Baptist Church (Stone Mountain, GA), several downtown synagogues, and the Islamic Speakers’ Bureau.  I joined the committee around 2011, and volunteered to be the “congregational liaison” for the committee, traveling across the state to meet with pastors and supporting (or encouraging) interfaith work in their local communities. One of our initiatives of the committee was to form and dedicate an interfaith garden at Mercer University.

When I moved to Vero Beach in 2016, I sought out the local Rabbi, Michael Birnholz, at Temple Beth Shalom, only two blocks from my house.  He invited me to become active in the Indian River Interfaith Community, which meets monthly at Cleveland Clinic through the generous support of the Chaplaincy’s office.

The Indian River Interfaith Community is a group of local faith leaders and friends who communicate our unity in the midst of diversity.  It is a group that, in good faith, shares what we have in common but also does not shy away from our distinctives and differences.

Aside from meeting monthly, we host several programs for the public, including online interfaith dialogues, an annual Thanksgiving service hosted by the Community Church, prayer vigils in times of crisis and tragedy, the Four Chaplains service in Sebastian, and service projects, among many other events.

As a way to encourage interfaith understanding, I encourage four keys to interfaith work.  First, learn! Read books and search out healthy avenues of learning about people of other cultures, histories, and religions.   

Second, befriend.  Relationships are the key to “faith seeking understanding,” and I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and be intentional about befriending people who are different from you. 

Third, listen!  Listen to the stories of others and understand.  Listen to the emotions behind the words, and put yourselves in the shoes of another.  

Last, engage! Participate in community. Participate in the community of your own faith, then go out and participate in the community of others. Just last month, for instance, I had the privilege of preaching at Temple Beth Shalom. Later this month, Rabbi Michael will share at First Baptist Church. Engaging means, ultimately, learning how to tell your own story.  Stay informed and figure out how you can be part of the solution of eliminating or decreasing religious violence, persecution, and marginalization.  How can you advocate for peace, fight against religious abuse, or support global organizations committed to alleviating human rights abuses around the world? 

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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