Creating a community conversation

Luke’s Gospel (10:1-11) has a great story in which Jesus calls to interfaith conversation.

At this point he has just a small following, and he sends 70 people to every town and place he intends to travel — not just to fellow Jews, but to all peoples.

His disciples are not sent to proselytize, convert, fight or argue. Their sending is accompanied by a simple task: Go meet people where they live; eat and drink with them, and bring a message of peace.

Jesus does not demand that his followers recruit more people to his movement. In fact, he suggests that if they are not warmly received, they should simply move on to the next place — sending born from a need to relate and connect, rather than convert.

This creates a precedent in the early Jesus movement that elevates connection and dialogue over doctrinal conviction. It implies that getting to know your neighbors is more important than inducing them to adopt your theological stance.

Jesus suggests that going out and offering peace is more important. Many who proclaim a faith in Jesus have spent the past 2,000 years doing the opposite.

Instead of developing deeper relationships with those from whom we differ, we build religious centers meant to define our differences and exclude those who disagree. We spend great amounts of financial, social and critical energy dreaming up ways to convince others that they must believe just as we do — and have even gone to war over religious ideology.

As one who works with young adults daily, I am frequently reminded that fundamentalist and exclusionary religious movements have done much damage.

Pew Research studies show that one in four adults between the ages of 18 and 25 now have no religious affiliation, and that number is rising. The Barna Group, a church research center, reports that many young adults see churches as overprotective, homophobic, unscientific, judgmental and exclusionary.

In State College we are surrounded by a huge population of young adults. Although Penn State has one of America’s largest interfaith spiritual centers, the 60-plus faith groups on campus often struggle to convince students of the importance of religious experience and affiliation.

What would happen if more of our religious institutions and organizations harkened back to a calling to go out into the world, eat and drink with those from whom we differ and bring a message of peace?

How many of our historic conflicts and tensions might have been avoided with this simple message?

As I continue to connect with students at Penn State, reflecting on how challenging it can be to find a place of belonging on campus, I wonder if we who work with religious institutions might do better to advocate for conversation rather than conviction.

I wonder if creating spaces for doubt, disagreement and dialogue could be more important than a system that has often leaned more toward hard-line doctrine.

Maybe one day State College can be a place with a multitude of religious voices honoring and supporting each other around a table, over food, offering peace to all who desire it.