Listen before you leap

Synod School teacher: Effective interfaith engagement requires listening and being willing to be a stranger

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

At its roots, the Des Moines Area Religious Council is a multi-faith collaboration working to meet basic needs in its community. (Photo courtesy of DMARC)

LOUISVILLE — Opportunities abound for interfaith engagement, a pastor with the Des Moines Area Religious Council told a virtual classroom full of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School students on Tuesday. All one must do is “step outside of what is normal for you and move into someone else’s reality.”

On second thought, it may not be quite that simple. During Tuesday’s hour-long online class, the Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott, DMARC’s coordinator of interfaith engagement, used stories from her own journey about working with people of other faiths to make the case that it’s potentially life-changing work.

With a history degree in her pocket, Garriott set out about 20 years ago to Gallup, New Mexico, to serve a year with the anti-poverty AmeriCorps VISTA program. As she pulled into town, she heard radio commercials in the Navajo language. As the only VISTA volunteer in town, “they had no plans for me. They ignored me,” she said.

She decided just to meet with residents and listen. She heard stories of women trying to leave violent relationships, only to be told by pastors and priests this was their cross to bear. She spent time in the local domestic violence shelter and witnessed healing services involving sweat lodges and sand painting.

She decided to hold a conference on faith healing, inviting a pastor who’d told her previously “you don’t bring your problems to church” to join the planning team. After the conference was over, he confided in her: “I can see (domestic violence) is an important issue. No one ever told me because they didn’t trust me.”

A year after her AmeriCorps VISTA commitment had been fulfilled, she began classes at Harvard Divinity School. The final day of student orientation was Sept. 11, 2001. Harvard students soon set out to care for their Muslim colleagues.

“It was a diverse campus in a diverse city,” she said, with “quite a few” Muslim students. A few months into their coursework, students held an interfaith Ramadan celebration. “I started to get to know other religious communities and their practices,” she said.

While still a student she served hospital chaplaincies in Philadelphia and Chicago. “I found there were a lot of ways to be there for people,” she said. “You never know what the situation will call for. It was helpful for me to learn how to be a stranger, often during the worst moments of people’s lives.”

the Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott

Her first parish call was to a rural congregation in Virginia. She remembers other faith leaders there meeting privately “to talk about the way the lady pastor would teach people there is no hell.”

She next served a church in Clive, Iowa, before coming to DMARC in 2017. A big part of her work includes putting on the annual Interfaith Youth Leadership Camp. A handful of attendees from the camp held earlier this month are scheduled to speak with Synod School students during Wednesday’s class session. Des Moines-area churches, including Central Presbyterian Church, have been working in recent months at improving relations with neighboring communities of faith.

Along the way, Garriott said she’s developed a theology of interfaith work to guide the work itself. A central verse for her is John 10:16: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

“I hear from a lot of Christians, ‘But what about salvation?’” she said. “It’s never been a very big question for me. For me, that verse says, ‘God has got it taken care of. We don’t know what it’s going to look like — and it’s not my job.”

The Samaritan woman at the well “is the wrong person, and I have often felt like the wrong person,” she said. “You think to do important work you have to be beyond reproach, and that’s just not the case. God uses ordinary people who aren’t perfect.”

At the end of John’s account of the woman’s encounter with Jesus, the disciples show up with food. The woman’s whole town shows up to learn more from this teacher with special insight into her life.

“I often think in interfaith work, who are the people who will show me things about God’s way?” Garriott said. “I might make assumptions about who can do the work, and I shouldn’t.”

When invited to fill a pulpit, Garriott said she likes to preach on Mark 6:6b-13, where Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs with only their staffs to lean on. He instructs them to be ready to accept hospitality from some households and the door slammed in their faces by others.

“Talking about rejection is an important piece of the work we are called to do,” she said. “Being a person of faith is welcoming others and being rejected by some.”

Being a stranger “is a skill Jesus wants us to have as people of faith,” she said. “We are pushed out of our comfort zones, and it doesn’t always work out the way we thought it would.”

In our Christian communities, “we love to talk about welcome. But what we mean is, we will welcome you to us. We are glad you made the effort to come to us,” she said. “It’s more biblical to flip that around, to go into the community to experience welcome from others. I’ve learned a lot by going out into the community, having both positive and negative experiences — and dealing with my discomfort.”

Editor’s note: Tuesday evening’s Synod School talk by Dr. Dede Johnston was interrupted by technical problems. Synod School organizers hope to record her talk at a later date and post it on the Synod School website.

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