Synod School class explores religious diversity in Des Moines

The Hawkeye State’s largest city has a faith community for just about everyone

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott

LOUISVILLE — Synod School, a Synod of Lakes and Prairies event anticipated by hundreds of Presbyterians each summer, launched Monday with thought-provoking online classes ahead of Monday evening’s virtual plenary gathering.

Synod School, which usually meets on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, is, because of the pandemic, being offered online free of charge this year. More than 330 people are registered.

One of the classes meeting Monday through Thursday features the Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott, coordinator of interfaith engagement with the Des Moines Area Religious Council, a central Iowa food pantry network that served 19,000 people per month before the pandemic. The agency expects to once again ramp up the distribution of fresh food once federal protection against evictions and unemployment compensation either expire or are reduced in the coming weeks.

Garriott, who’s ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, pointed out the religious diversity in Iowa’s largest community. Des Moines and the cities nearby are home to about 10 mosques, two Hindu communities, five Orthodox Christian churches, four Jewish congregations, about 10 Buddhist temples and two Sikh communities.

Iowa’s penchant for embracing refugees goes back at least to the administration of Republican Gov. Robert D. Ray, who in 1975 announced Iowa would take in Tai Dam refugees from Southeast Asia, creating his own refugee resettlement program to facilitate matters.

“That started the legacy of Iowa bringing people from different refugee populations into our state,” Garriott said. “We have many populations of folks in our community who date their history here back to Gov. Ray.”

Religious diversity is neither good nor bad, she said — it just is.

“It’s just a reality in our world,” she said. “The condition of the United States is that we have a diverse community.”

What is good or bad, she said, is the way we respond to diversity.

“We can choose prejudice, tension, isolation and conflict,” she said. “Or we can choose appreciation, warmth, relationships and cooperation.”

If we don’t make a choice, “we’re more likely to end up with conflict and tension,” she said. “That’s what happens when we leave things the way they are. Folks tend to recede to what they know and what they’re comfortable with.”

“We have to decide if we want all people’s gifts and talents to be used for the betterment of the community,” she said. “It’s a mistake,” she said, quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “to think the pendulum of history swings on its own accord.”

“We like his other quote” — “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King also said — “but the reality is,” she said, “we have to do some bending.”

She asked class participants: What’s standing in the way?

The fear of trying new things or visiting scary new places, engaging in new forms of worship, or fearing that we’ll encounter irreconcilable differences, participants suggested.

Garriott said that bonding capital is part of the social capital that people and groups and especially churches spend to engage one another and bridge their differences. Examples include sharing meals, singing together, worshiping and playing together.

“Feeding people and showing hospitality are universal ways” of focusing on the common good, she said.

She said some of the women she knows are enthralled with Garriott’s Sikh friend JJ, who used to make community presentations along with his father before setting off  to attend Stanford University. Like other male Sikhs, the two men wear turbans, explaining during their presentations that they don’t want to hide who they are and want to be of service — and easy to spot in a crowd — when their help is needed.

“Women would come up me with newspaper clippings: ‘Oooh, JJ won a speech contest’ or ‘I saw JJ on the news last night,’” she said. “They had never met a Sikh before, and now they all had a crush on JJ.”

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