Kristen Morgan, Director of Children and Family Ministry
Coexist is on the back of all of our VBS t-shirts.
While we were stamping it onto the t-shirts last week, someone who will remain nameless pointed out that he doesn’t really like the term “coexist”. He pointed out that it implies that we only have to live “next to” each other. No involvement, and no obligation to care for each other.
I can buy that. I said, Sure, I get it. Maybe then it’s better to look at Coexist in terms of Community. A group of people with common characteristics or interests living within a larger society.
But I decided I didn’t really like that either. A community doesn’t necessarily consist of people with commonalities, or similarities at all. Maybe it doesn’t hold people who have the same interests. We are all, after all, so very different.
It only takes a quick glance around to see differences.There are differences in where we live, how we live, what we look like, how we dress, and what our faith practices look like.Differences seem to breed fear, but why? If everyone is different, why are differences scary?
I think the easiest answer is perhaps that it’s easy to be afraid of something, or someone, that we don’t understand. I think that it’s this fear of the unknown that has created so many divisions between people in our world today. And unfortunately, this division often manifests in horrific violence, particularly when it comes to religious beliefs.
In October of 2018, this violence touched our own city, at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
Before that, in 2017, at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Before that, in 2016, at a mosque in New York City.
And since 2018, the violence touched the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand in March of 2019.
During a Sunday School teacher meeting shortly after the Christchurch shooting, the teachers were discussing what we could possibly do in our own community to teach our kids not to be afraid in their own church home, but also to teach them not to be afraid of people who have a different faith background from their own.There, the idea for Stick with Love, our VBS theme, was born.
We thought it would be amazing if we could have speakers from religious backgrounds different from ours. We could dispel some of the fear by giving the kids a beginning understanding of other faiths. Maybe by bringing people in from other faith communities to talk to the kids, perhaps we could build a bond with those faith communities and work together going forward in our ministries.
Fast forward to VBS this past week.We had 65 kids, 20 teen helpers, and 18 adult leaders here every day.We sang, we danced, we did crafts, we played games, we had snacks, we heard stories and most importantly, we listened to speakers talk about their own faith, their faith community, and how their faith leads them in their own lives.
And I was so amazed and proud of how attentive our kids were to the speakers.They were a wonderful audience.
We talked about our own faith, Christianity, on the first day.We talked about how the sign outside St. Paul’s says Love Wins, and that Jesus instructed his disciples to love all people and spread God’s love everywhere.We did a trust walk, walking with hands on each other’s shoulders with eyes closed, to demonstrate that even if we cannot always see what God’s plan is for us, there is always a gentle hand guiding us through our lives.
Tuesday, we learned about Judaism from Kate Louik. In Judaism, people believe that God is everywhere, and God created everyone and everything.Therefore, God is in all people and in all things.Some Jewish families celebrate Shabbat each week, from Friday at Sundown to Saturday at Sundown.The kids were fascinated with Kate’s description of her own family’s Shabbat. This is a time to worship God and be with family.Kate’s family has special candles that they light, Shabbat candles, that cannot be blown out.The kids were fascinated with the candles.They were also interested in learning that Kate’s family uses special bread, Challah, and special wine.The kids were intrigued by Kate’s Havdalah candle, a special braided candle that is put out at the end of Shabbat by slowly dipping it into the cup of wine, and that a long sizzle means that the coming week will be sweet.Finally, caring for others and works of charity are important in many Jewish families. Mitzvah is a good deed done out of religious duty, and many people who are Jewish make caring for others a big priority in their lives.
On Wednesday, we welcomed Abraham and Shorouq Bader, who taught us about Islam. Shorouq is the principal of the only Islamic school in the city.Both Abraham and Shorouq spoke to the kids and we learned some wonderful things about a faith that I think is often not well understood.We learned that people who practice Islam are called Muslims, and that they believe that without God, none of us would not exist. Muslims believe that all life is valuable, and how we treat each other and care for each other matters.Many people of the Islamic faith believe that their purpose on earth is to do mercy to the entire universe.
Thursday, we learned about Hinduism from a wonderful animated man named Kunal Ghosh—he is a professor of physics at CMU and he was
excited but incredibly nervous to talk to the kids. He taught us some terrific things about Hinduism.Many Hindus believe that God is in all people, and all things. Kunal told the us that when he looks at each of us, he sees God. In Hinduism, all life is sacred, and showing respect and love to all people is central, because God is in everyone. Charity—caring for others—is important to many people of the Hindu faith, particularly when it comes to vulnerable populations.
On Friday, we remembered each of our speakers and celebrated all of our faiths with a singing celebration in Mt. Lebanon park, followed by a picnic and lots of fun on the playground together.
I think one of the most interesting parts of our week was when the kids were given the opportunity to ask questions to our speakers.Their questions were open and honesty and without guile, and were asked with all the innocence that children possess. On the day that we were learning about Judaism, the kids wanted to know what it was like to hear the sizzle of the Havdalah candle in the wine. They had a long discussion at that point about how quiet one had to be to hear that sizzle.The day we were learning about Islam, one of the youngest children asked Shorouq about the way she was dressed. Shorouq explained that in her faith, the clothing she was wearing was a matter of modesty.Some Muslim women do not show their beauty to anyone but their close family members.To do that, they wear the long robe called an Abaya, and a hijab, which is a scarf that covers the hair. And the day we were learning about Hinduism, one of the kids asked why Hindus celebrate and Kunal said “because it’s fun, don’t you like to have a good party?”
These amazing speakers are the neighbors that we heard about in our reading from Galatians today.
“”All the law has been fulfilled in a single statement:“Love your neighbor as yourself.”” When questioned about which commandment was most important, Jesus replied ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it:You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is stated that the one who was a neighbor to the injured man was the one who had mercy on him.
We cannot afford to simply exist alongside our neighbors. We cannot fear those who are different from us.In hearing our speakers this week, I was struck by how differently each faith approaches their worship of God. Their worship truly looks different from ours, and from each other’s. However, there is nothing to fear about these differences.They are beautiful and should be celebrated, the way we did this past week. However, at the same time I was also struck by the threads of LOVE that so clearly runs through each faith. Judaism. Islam. Hinduism. Christianity. At the heart of each is Love. Not romantic love, but agape love—the love that God has for us, that we have for God, and that we can work to cultivate with our neighbors. It is a love of good will, benevolence, faithfulness, and commitment.
It is hard to break through fear. But it is possible. Meet new people, like we did this week.Talk to them.Learn their stories. Find out who they are. Build relationships. Work together toward a common goal. Serve together. You may discover that the differences are outweighed by the similarities of humanity, personhood, and love.
Perhaps our community really is and can be a group of people with common interests, living together, as a part of a larger society. Maybe what each of us learned this week about differences, but also about the underlying similarities of love and caring of each faith, will be something that they take with us into the world.
If fear breeds division, then we disassembled some of that fear and division this week. We learned about other faiths and discovered that God is indeed in every person, and in everything.
I definitely saw God this week.