Thursday, May 26, 2011

Interfaith Social Action as Religious Practice

By Honna Eichler
Originally posted May 25, 2011 at Social Action Ministries

This week, Honna Eichler, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a staff member at Interfaith Worker Justice, reflects on the reasons interfaith social action is part of her religious practice.

I love interfaith work for many reasons. Often, it allows me to explore other traditions and clarify my own religious convictions. Through this work, I have gained an international network of colleagues from whom I can enjoy and learn. It is gratifying to watch interfaith coalition building cultivate respect between communities that once misunderstood by each other. Perhaps out of everything I love about interfaith work, I love the social cohesion it can inspire.

Many people inside and outside the faith community enact their principles through social action. Usually, this work directly ties to their personal belief system or sense of a common good they promote. Engaging in social action becomes remarkable when people of different backgrounds, convictions and beliefs come together and say: this, this right here is something worth fighting for.

The organization I work for (Interfaith Worker Justice) recently sent me to Columbus, Ohio to mobilize the interfaith community around the anti-union legislation in consideration. IWJ specializes in inspiring social action around issues of economic justice with the idea that all religious traditions, despite their differences, work towards justice. Outside of Chicago, where interfaith coalition building is a norm and not an innovation, I was interested by the reception of the idea that many faith traditions can come together in social action for one purpose. For many, the idea that religious social activism was not limited to one ideology was refreshing.

As a Presbyterian, I am as committed to social action as I am to working with people of other beliefs and faiths towards social action. While I believe there are different reasons people work towards common goods, there are many common goods that are shared by the religious and non-religious alike. For me, working with people with whom I do not agree on religion or belief is humbling because I am reminded my tradition alone does not have a singular claim on the common good.

In Matthew 7:12, Jesus tells people to love their neighbors as they love themselves – this basic, overly referenced text is useful to me. The concept of loving my neighbor supports my desire to better understand and engage with those who believe differently than I. How can I love what I do not understand? Engaging in interfaith dialogue or interfaith social action is a way of increasing my understanding of others – it is a way of loving them.

Presbyterians (at least the ones I know) are committed to the idea of creating sustainable and non-violent relationships with people of different backgrounds and faiths. In Chicago, I sit on a work group of Presbyterian ministers and faith leaders that is designed primarily to develop relationships with the interfaith and ecumenical community in our city. Through this work group, we attempt to become better neighbors and companions to those around us, especially those who believe differently than we do.

For me interfaith work means making sure I hear, respond and engage with the voices of those around me. Sometimes it means I need to go out and invite new voices to enter into conversation with me. But the best times are when, through listening, I find new needs for social action – needs I would be unexposed to through remaining in my comfortable circle. Interfaith social action, therefore, is a spiritual practice in my life.

Honna Eichler received a Master of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary in 2010 and currently works at Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago, IL. She is an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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