By Frank Shirvinski
(In this column, Frank Shirvinski, senior minister at Chaparral Christian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, writes about the church’s initiatives to connect with its local interfaith community.)
Our relationship with the Jewish community in Scottsdale started a number of years ago with the release of The Passion of the Christ. When [Mel] Gibson’s movie came to town, two synagogues and two churches took the opportunity to present a joint screening, followed by a panel discussion with local clergy. The theater was sold out—and the discussion was greatly appreciated by an audience both interested in and concerned about the state of interfaith relations. They wanted to hear their own clergy, whom they knew and trusted, respond to the movie and to their neighbors. Gibson presented an opening for a new kind of dialogue—and those who gathered accepted the challenge.
However, once the popcorn was swept from the floor of the theater, we were faced with the reality that interfaith learning and experience involves more than just responding to a contentious film. A connection was formed, and people in both faith communities wanted to continue the discussion. The four clergy involved in the movie discussion agreed to teach classes together and see where the conversations led. These classes were held two to three times each year and covered common biblical texts or information on holidays like Christmas or Passover.
Most interfaith programs attempt to show people of different faith backgrounds how much they have in common. This can be a sanitizing process: it sets aside what truly makes us interesting and diverse. To be sure, pleasant interfaith exchanges over coffee are a necessary beginning. But instead of ignoring the boundaries and pretending we are all alike, we decided to help people gain clarity by strengthening their own religious identity in the presence of someone different. A strong and clear identity allows for the freedom to engage someone from a different perspective without feeling threatened. The opportunity to recognize how we are unique and how our beliefs and customs are distinct from one another is the beginning of true interfaith relationships.
This initial interfaith sharing expanded between Chaparral Christian Church and Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue. For years, Congregation Beth Israel held High Holiday services in Phoenix Symphony Hall. When the hall was closed for remodeling, they searched for another venue and looked down the road . . . to neighboring Chaparral Christian Church.
Chaparral’s sanctuary could accommodate the services, the parking lots could hold the cars, and the technical capabilities were adequate. Practically, there were no obstacles that could not be overcome with minor adjustments.
But the unseen obstacles, the kind you save for last, were far more daunting. The synagogue asked if we would be willing to cover a large glass cross, centrally located among the organ pipes, with a verse from Psalms: “How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together.”
Rarely does theological identity ever find such a practical expression. What meaning does that cobalt blue cross, flanked by silver pipes, carry to a 21st-century Christian? After all, the cross did not become a popular Christian symbol until the rise of Constantine in the fourth century. Does the symbol of the cross itself continue to define those who are called “Christians”? Is covering the cross the equivalent of hiding your light under a bushel basket? Would using a verse from a shared, sacred text make it acceptable? This very real issue is a matter of self-identification, one that would never have been examined without someone else to ask the question.
The elders and ministers at CCC met to discuss these questions, beginning with a hard look at the Scriptures and our mission statement, “To be the presence of Christ.” What did those six words really mean? What examples did the Scriptures provide? How was the symbol of the cross included in that statement?
In Acts, we find records of the earliest Christian conversion experiences. In most cases, after coming to faith in Jesus of Nazareth, converts would demonstrate their new faith through acts of hospitality (Acts 2:41-47; 10:46-48; 16:14, 15, 33, 34). These ancient stories were the direction we were seeking. The symbolic expression of who the first Christians claimed to be was not a matter of static representations or physical reminders, but a living, active, and engaging desire to extend themselves for the good of their neighbors. As the chairman of our elders summarized, “When we extend our hand to our neighbor, we extend it all the way.” So Chaparral did.
In retrospect, hanging a banner with Psalm 133:1 inscribed upon it did not cover a cross as much as it uncovered something important about the members of Chaparral and Congregation Beth Israel. Together, we were reminded of shared values that lie at the heart of our faiths: proactive hospitality and a practical love for our neighbors throughout the world.
Since that first celebration of the High Holy Days at Chaparral, new ways of working side-by-side for the sake of our larger and shared community have been uncovered through interfaith studies, food drives, and an exploration of how our faiths find practical expression. In the last several years, we have shared many celebrations. At the 11 o’clock Christmas Eve service at Chaparral, a number of pews are filled with Jewish friends helping their Christian neighbors celebrate the nativity.
A few years ago, Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman of Synagogue 3000 and I developed an interfaith encounter in Israel that provided a collection of Jewish and Christian pilgrims a unique opportunity to experience an extraordinary 14-day journey to Israel and Jordan. As occurs on any visit to Israel, we came face-to-face with the exciting, challenging, and miraculous history of the Jewish people and the origins of Christianity. We experienced the diverse customs and cultures of the region and the sacred sites that make up the land of Israel.
But unlike other explorations of the Holy Land, our journey opened conversations that forced us to think deeply about who we are and what we believe, in the context of “the other.”
Our visit to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv presented us with an opening for intense dialogue about the ideas of homeland and nation as defined by Jews and Christians.
Our visit to Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust) demanded that we ask painful questions of ourselves and each other, like what are the obligations that come with being people of faith?
And our visits to sites where Jesus taught caused us to consider the role of sacred places in our traditions. The conversations that took place while meandering among ancient ruins or floating in the Dead Sea, the tears that formed along the Via Dolorosa, and the openness to new friendships all became part of a unique tapestry of shared and differing beliefs, along with new visions and renewed perspectives.
Together, both communities are learning how to best extend their hands to their neighbors, all the way.
(Since that trip, Shirvinski and Rabbi Zimmerman have delivered a series of lectures at Emmanuel Christian Seminary on the practical aspects of developing an interfaith dialogue in local communities. Visit their website at gesherinterfaith.org.)