“We learned a lot about your faith and we greatly appreciate the discussion we had with your youth”
What a blessing to have a students, parents, and a teacher from the San Francisco First Unitarian Universalist Church (UUC) join our worship service. Not only did they witness our main service, they also participated in a custom-designed class created to dialogue about spiritual journey. It was a great personal interchange of our faith stories among our different traditions between the youth, teachers, and parents from both our groups. Once the conversations got going, we quickly ran out of time.
I loved the fact that for many of our youth, it was the first time they got to talk about their faith to youth who come from another faith tradition. If you’re not familiar with the UUC, their website gives a great simple definition. “Unitarian Universalism is a theologically diverse religion that encourages people to seek their own spiritual path.”
How this came about
I have a relationship with Pastor Alyson Jacks of the UUC. Together with other church leaders, we planned an interfaith bike ride consisting of riders from a diverse variety of San Francisco’s faith traditions (Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and more). I led a liturgy during the ride and Alyson led the closing ceremony. While planning for this year’s event, she referred me to one of their teachers that leads a class on different faith traditions. And that’s when I pitched to her some new ideas that led to their visit:
- Could she imagine BOTH our youth groups interacting together around their respective spiritual journeys? Though their youth have visited other churches, they’ve never interacted with any other youth on any of their visits. So when I brought up this idea, she was immediately excited about this idea.
- I wanted our time together to “count,” that is, the last thing I wanted was for both youth groups to get stuck on peripheral issues, such as their favorite Taylor Swift songs. So before I proceeded with my next inquiry, I asked where their youth were in their spiritual journeys. “They’re still searching” I was told. Then I asked, “what if our youth shared that their spiritual journeys have found an end, and that end is in Jesus Christ?” I took a minor risk with that question; to some, it can come off dogmatic, but i felt it was worth asking. I received an affirmative answer. The stage was set; our youth will be able to share their journey in Jesus with the youth and accompanying grown ups of the UUC. And, our youth would be able to hear about the faith journey of other youth, but from a church where Jesus is not “the Way.”
What our guests experienced:
Their thank you card says they “experience(d) such a vibrant service with such a welcoming congregation.” When people think “vibrant,” great worship bands and music usually comes to mind. But that was not the case here. They showed up on time, but our service usually begins with a preaching of God’s Word. THEN comes the singing (so that the latter is a response to the former). Our guests stayed for about 10 minutes of singing before heading to a class I had designed for them with our own youth along with a few of our own parents. So they missed most of the music at the end. The the preaching was vibrant, highlighting how God is alive, speaking to us through His Word and even through dreams (as it often the case in closed countries with very little access to the Bible) Plus they experienced the hospitality of welcome without suspicion.
In our time of dialogue, once trust and momentum were established, I asked them what they felt when they heard the testimonies of God speaking today through dreams. They responded that they were accepting of those who hear God in their dreams, in the same way they accept Mormons, Wicca witches, and more in their congregation. Not as direct an answer I was hoping for, but for two youth groups who had never met before, the whole time was still tremendous.
What our own youth experienced:
The thank you card they sent us does not acknowledge that our youth were just as blessed as their youth. And I take great joy in that. Seeing our youth talk about their faith alone is great. But there’s just something special, even rare, about talking about it to others from another church that hold different faith tenents. These kinds of conversations ought to cause one to self-reflect, “Does my faith hold water? How much is my faith simply what i was told verses how much how I seen my faith come alive in my own life? What does all this have to do with school and life?”
Another great experience for our youth was this, simply being humble, non-combative with talking about spiritual things with others. This was not a debate. We all talked as friends. Altogether, these kinds of experiences tests one’s own faith, and teaches us how to better love those who hold other faiths. In cities like San Francisco where Christianity’s reputation is marred (e.g. assassination of a former mayor, hate signs against others, child molestation…these atrocities and many more are associate with “Christians”), it’s much more important to learn how to engage others from a Kingdom perspective, then to “present the Gospel truth” propositionally.
Why Cities like San Francisco are such a great place for these exchanges to happen:
Why? Our guests from the UUC walked to our church. There’s such a simple beauty in that fact. No need to get into a youth van. In fact, we could walk to any number of churches. Within walk a 5 block radius (about a 10 minute slow walk, depending on lights), I count 26 faith centers that we can walk to. Since our City is only 7 miles by 7 miles, you could theoretically walk to any of hundreds of churches. (My engineering-minded friends have already calculated the length of the hypotenuse in their heads by now).
Accessibility by foot greatly lowers the threshold between neighbors of faith, ethnicity, and more. By walking to one church or destination, one will very likely walk by several other churches. (in fact as I type, I’m designing the 2nd annual interfaith bike ride to do just that)
Having conversations with people about spiritual matters is one of my favorite things to do. Frequently, people I’m talking to express that their views have changed on account of our conversations. For me, conversations very often test, strengthen, and refine my faith, my perspectives, my articulation. And at times, I have to change some of my own peripheral views.
But even better than that are opportunities like this one, where I set up someone or some people to experience what I often experience, to love our neighbor, to bless them, to seek their welfare.