What one rural faith community did to increase religious literacy in Minnesota
A line of rainbow-hued doors fronts the New Journey United Church of Christ in Hutchinson (Minnesota) bearing the inscription, “God’s Doors Are Open To All.” This summer Reverend Jill Warner has been shepherding her congregation through what she terms the “Languages of Love,” a journey to explore the spiritual grammar, syntax, and poetry of other belief systems. Linda Shapiro recently interviewed Rev. Warner to find out what she and her congregation have garnered from delving into world religions.
Q: Why did you choose the idea of different languages of love for your worship series?
R: Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his defense of religion, said that at its core religion is “an intuition for the infinite.” Putting that in my own words, I believe our doctrines and sacred texts are not definitive, but rather descriptive. We’re all trying to explain that intuitive experience of something beyond. Just as I speak English rather than German or Swahili, I use a different Love Language than say a Muslim or Hindu individual. In this time when misinformation and misunderstanding is leading to more tension, conflict, and violence, it seemed a good time to demystify other religions.
Q: You wrote, “I imagine God speaking to us in a variety of languages, through a variety of world religions.” Can you give some specific examples of how world religions speak to their cohorts that is perhaps different from Christianity?
R: I think of the Daoist wisdom to strive always to be in resonance, to learn from and flow with the natural ways of the universe. A Leaf doesn’t try to go upstream, for example, and the ocean never puts itself above the river because that would stop the natural flow of the water. Though I can recognize similar words of wisdom from Jesus, Christianity has too often lost that message and focused instead on the Genesis 1 message to have dominion over creation. I also admire the Islam practice of setting aside specific times for prayer. It reminds me of the seven canonical hours of prayer practiced by some Christian monastics, but is a practice long ago lost by and rarely encouraged for the individual church member.
Q: Is “Languages of Love” a worship series other Minnesota faith leaders may use for their own community? If not, what other resources are recommended?
R: I did not find a curriculum or ready-made resource to use. I instead searched direct web sites. When possible, I started with the website of a trusted, known faith community, like the MN Sikh Society or the official website of Baha’i in America. Where I was less familiar and/or dealing with a decentralized religion, I tried to find multiple sites in order to speak about the common, core principles and practices, and not get caught by stumbling upon a rogue site and assuming it to offer reliable insight. My advice to the congregation throughout was that they NOT try to learn about another religion by going to a biased Christian site.
I’ve become wary of trusting the fascinating, manipulative world of religious disinformation. I’ve experienced, for instance, churches that will bring in a guest speaker to talk about, say, Islam. The speaker’s history is with an extremist branch of Islam, so presents an extremely distorted understanding, thereby explaining why the “only true path” is their newly chosen faith, Christianity. There are also nationwide organizations that bring free programs into public schools. The program during the day encourages good ethical behavior and follows all separation of church and state guidelines, but they invite the children back at night, when they’ve rented the space, and there they offer hardcore messages warning that not being “saved” will send you and/or your family to hell.
Q: How did your congregation invite the broader Hutchinson community’s participation?
R: For this series my purpose was to engage our congregation and encourage learning, especially as we were concerned with numbers due to Covid. Prior to Covid we had begun to develop gatherings that would reach beyond Christianity; a meditation group, a simple Tai Chi offering, a book group and Arts offerings. My hope is that as Covid subsides we will be able to engage the community in more conversations and activities in the future. YouTube offers a safe place for people who want to check us out. Our YouTube videos, launched during the pandemic, are available at New Journey UCC, and we also broadcast on local access TV.
Q: Was there any hesitation or disapproval, either inside or outside the congregation, about offering this multifaith learning program in Hutchinson? If so, how was that feedback navigated?
R: The only internal hesitation I’ve heard is the reality that one cannot fully explain a religion in a twenty-minute sermon and discussion, a very valid concern, and one I shared. I haven’t heard any external negative feedback. Our stance at New Journey on responding to disapproval by the community has been to hope that if those who disapprove of our inclusive stance are taking notice, so will those who need a place of inclusion.
Q: What are one or two things you learned through offering this series that you hadn’t already known about another religion?
R: I really appreciated learning about the decentralized structure of Hinduism, and the resulting nuanced understandings of the nature and purpose of their varied Deities. On a broader scale – it was revelatory to realize how many of the world’s current religions were born in a time of conflict within or transformation of culture. So many claimed to be the oldest because they were evolutions from earlier, oral religions. It heightened my longing to be more in touch with the pre-literary, pre-codified understanding of creation and God and the spirituality of my own faith.
Q: What do you believe to be New Journey Congregation’s fundamental takeaway from this program?
R: Of course, I can’t speak for them, but more than one congregation member has mentioned in our discussions that Love seems to be at the core of all the faiths we’re exploring. We mentioned often that each of the major world religions teaches some version of the Golden Rule. It’s an attitude we try to nurture, following in the path of Jesus rather than clinging to doctrine. In addition to love, respect and kindness were recommended by all.
Q: What tips do you have for other faith leaders living in areas of limited religious diversity to generate interest for this type of worship series?
R: Don’t be afraid of the naysayers. At the same time, don’t waste energy trying to convert others to your way of thinking. It just makes us crabby and takes time away from our calling to deepen relationships with the Divine and with one another. Lean into the belief shared in so many religions, that God, Allah, the Dharma, the Dao are beings or paths larger than our imaginations and not threatened by pushing beyond the boundaries of our human created doctrines. Proudly claim your own heritage as one piece of the tapestry, even as you open hearts and minds to celebrate another way of experiencing the world.
By Linda Shapiro
Linda Shapiro is a former choreographer who co-founded New Dance Ensemble. She is currently a freelance writer with published articles, reviews, and essays on dance, architecture, design, and other subjects for numerous publications in Minnesota and New York City. She is also a published fiction writer. Mary Pickard (member of MnMN’s operations team) ignited Linda’s interest in MnMN. We are grateful Linda is able to volunteer her time to gather and record these important stories.