Friends of All Faiths
We went to Vietnam for a simple reason: because we had a sense that God wanted us there. Gradually I became friends with Vietnamese business leaders, government leaders, artists, educators, and so on. Last Sunday a Vietnamese diplomat was at our church, and last week in Washington, D.C., I attended the celebration of fifteen years of American relations with Vietnam. President Clinton, John Kerry, John McCain, and Ambassador Le Cong Phung all spoke. It was strange to be the only pastor there.
Yet now you're not only involved in Vietnam.
Right. I remember thinking, "Working with Vietnamese communists isn't so bad -- I'm just glad I didn't wind up working in the Middle East with all those scary Muslims!" Then through a series of events a few years later, after September 11th, we began to do volunteer work in Afghanistan. One relationship led to another and I became friends with many Islamic imams and government leaders around the world.
Eventually I wound up working with the United Nations and a group of world leaders who were focused on preventing a "clash of civilizations" by working with religious, government, political, business, and humanitarian leaders. Now I visit the Middle East frequently. I didn't see many evangelicals, if any, in those circles. I realized they would never come to these kinds of conversations in the Middle East because they believed it would require them to compromise their faith. That was false, but it was the perception.
The decision to host our upcoming multifaith conference was a big step. I wondered why no one hosted conferences like this for evangelicals. Then I realized there really weren't any evangelicals working in this area, and there was simply no market for it. But if we do not build bridges between our religious communities, and do not learn to understand one another better, then we will continue to fear one another and continue to live in conflict. That's why we decided to host the Global Faith Forum.
People might be surprised when they find a devout, theologically conservative Texas evangelical involved in multifaith efforts. How do you hold your evangelical convictions together with your multifaith commitments?
How can it be any other way? They are inseparable. If I really believe in the Great Commission, why would I not engage others in conversation, and especially the imams and gatekeepers? If they are not your friends, how can you ask hard questions and come to understand them? I feel that I am ministering entirely in the tradition of the apostle Paul. Look at Paul's actions at the synagogue and Mars Hill.
Can you tell us more about the Global Faith Forum?
I was always amazed at how open people were once you became their friends and how you could talk to them and have really deep conversations. Gradually, I'd invite some of them to visit our church when they came to America and they were always amazed at our church and our church would be amazed at them. It saddened me that so few people experience that wonder. So last year we came up with an idea: what if we had a multifaith weekend?
The word "interfaith" has come to connote, for some, a watering down of what you believe in order to get along. As an evangelical Christian, I don't want to compromise about what I believe about the Gospel. So where does that leave us? We should be able to be honest about our differences. If we cannot be honest, then we can never have legitimate relationships. We need a new platform to come together -- what I call multifaith -- where we hold passionately to our faith and come together not by denying the truths we affirm but by respecting one another. So, Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Shalon, Imam Zia of the Irving Islamic Center, and our NorthWood church all came together with our congregations. On a Friday, all three congregations went to the synagogue; on Saturday we all went to the mosque; and Sunday we broke the record at NorthWood for the amount of people with hijabs and skullcaps! Each time, we had desserts, watched the other worship, and then the rabbi, the imam, and I took questions and answers. It went over huge, and wound up leading to the women doing cooking classes and the men doing home makeovers together as the three faith groups came to know one another and spend time together.