I’m at a conference of mostly moderate evangelical Christians in the Pacific Northwest, and virtually everybody I have met is doing something that helps humanity and inspires me.
There’s the woman who runs an organization that resettles refugees. The guy who learned that a YMCA in a poor area was about to close, moved his family across the country to become the CEO and is about to cut the ribbon on a brand-new building that will serve thousands.
There are people at this conference who run homeless shelters, programs for the formerly incarcerated, women’s empowerment initiatives in developing world nations.
Literally everyone here is doing something to help the marginalized, those who suffer from institutionalized racism, the victims of systemic oppression.
Except that’s not, for the most part, the language that’s used. Mostly the talk here is about their devotion to Jesus, the Christian command to love the neighbor, the power of God becoming flesh and beckoning others to follow.
As a Muslim, I don’t agree with all of the theology (we Muslims believe Jesus was a beloved prophet of God, but not his only son or the savior, at least not in the manner that Christians believe that), but I find the general approach both familiar and, frankly, very moving. If you go to the programs of the Inner City Action Network, the most inspiring American Muslim organization that I know, you’ll hear continuous references to God and the Quran as the staff go about their work in the free health clinic, the arts program and the prisoner re-entry initiative.
The basic logic is the one that classical Islamic scholars taught to their students: the one who is in heaven is merciful to you -- it is your duty to be merciful to others.
Too often when I talk about the importance of positively engaging religious identity in a progressive higher ed space, the first question that gets asked is this: “Christians hate gays and refugees and poor people, so why should I create a space for their identities?”
That’s the same view of Christians that bigots have of Muslims: knowing only the bad stuff.
My hope is that people will remember that Christians often start and run the programs that provide direct service to those very people when they are suffering the most.
Here’s another way to put that: progressives advocate that marginalized people should be helped, Christians are often the people building the institutions that actually do the helping.
Nick Kristof has written about this movingly for The New York Times -- “go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.
This is something that I actually learned in college. I became more progressive as a result of the sociology classes I was taking at the University of Illinois, but when I looked for ways to help the people that were being hurt by an unfair system, I quickly discovered that the homeless shelters, soup kitchens and tutoring programs were built by Christians.
All of these places serve everybody, and people of all faiths (and none) volunteered and worked there.
I spent many evenings volunteering at the local Salvation Army shelter, which was run by a remarkable woman named Susan Freiburg. Susan had genuine love for the people she worked with. She brought warmth and discipline to lives that lacked it. Several of the men at that shelter were gay, and Susan knew it and looked out for them in particular.
Susan died about a year after we met from an aggressive cancer, but she taught me so much in that short time -- especially about spirituality. She had an eclectic view that drew from multiple traditions. It kept her going and serving even when she was suffering horribly from chemo sessions.
It was probably my first encounter of how spirituality inspires service. And it came from a Jewish woman who delighted in quoting Hindu scriptures as she was dying from cancer, still working at a shelter for men that had been set up by a conservative Christian organization.
I think we need more of that in America. I like Stephen Carter’s take on being inspired by the Salvation Army’s work, rather than focusing on where you might disagree with parts of its charter.
I don’t expect secular progressives and moderate evangelicals to agree on ideology, but I do believe we can do something maybe more important together -- work that actually helps people we all care about, especially those who suffer the most. Jane Addams called this “the fellowship of the deed.”
Speaking of ideology, part of what strikes me about moderate evangelical spaces is just how much things are changing. This whole conference that I’m at is organized around the question of “Who is my neighbor?” drawing from the story of the Good Samaritan, with the key lesson being everyone is your neighbor, and Christians are commanded to engage especially with those who are different and viewed as “other.”
On stage at this conference was an advocate for gay civil rights, a man who moved to Iraq to be in solidarity with the people there as they endured war, three people who had been incarcerated and are now out and getting their lives back together, and me, a Muslim.
The big idea -- Christian theology needs to expand to include all such people, and more.
The interesting thing to me about this world of moderate evangelicals is that their practice got there before their theology.
My mother always said, actions speak louder.