As someone who has worshipped in several types of churches and spends a significant amount of time with people of all faiths helping those in need, I have formed opinions about the best and worst things about religion. This is not intended as elevation or indictment of any religion as there are a great many similarities across the spectrum. Most of the indictment could be focused on our imperfections as humans where even well-intended actions can miss their mark and cause the exact opposite effect.
In short, when religious experiences tend to be at their best and truly soar are when people are inclusive and witness by deed or example. The last part of this equation is of great importance, as we humans tend to have some measure of hypocrisy, where we do not do as we say. Yet, when people get up out of their chair to do things, more people will take notice. I work often with the impoverished and homeless in our community. Our community stewardship is heavily faith-led with government and others joining in the partnerships to help those in need. I have witnessed wondrous things when people check their egos and seek to help those in need, especially when they can do so and permit the people being helped to maintain their dignity. In other words, they are helping someone climb a ladder, rather than push them up the ladder or prevent them from climbing it.
They are being inclusive and helping people regardless of their faith. I have often witnessed those being helped may, in fact, be more devout than those helping, as their faith may be the only asset they have left. When the faith community is inclusive and helping those in need, witnessing only by their deeds, the religious experience for all soars. It allows people to better understand why people are in need and what kind of help would truly make a long-term difference. In the book “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton, when people are helping others and they talk to the communities where the needs are greatest – being inclusive – the help is more targeted and successful. In other words, it is more about those in need, rather than the helpers. This is why I used the phrase “check their egos” as if it is more about the helpers, the mission will fail.
These comments cross all religions. When we are inclusive and work collaboratively, we can move mountains. When we are exclusive, we are tearing them down slowly, but surely. Almost every religion has some form of the Golden Rule from the Christian bible. The words when paraphrased have been echoed to my children time and time again. I used to ask of my kids, “what is Dad’s favorite saying?” To which they would respond, “treat others like you want to be treated.” If we all strived to do this, each and every day, we would live in a better place.
Yet, we are human and imperfect and so our religions. Faith groups have been established over time for disagreements over how services should be conducted, interpretations or mere personalities. I would wager that churchgoers would be hard pressed to explain the subtle differences of some of the religions. In fact, there was a study done about two years ago that indicated atheists and agnostics knew the bible better than most Christians. My point is if the parishioners do not know the differences, then the differences must not be that important. To me, this is an argument for more inclusion. We are all the same, so we should extend the Golden Rule to all people, not just the ones who worship like we do.
The worst of religion is in evidence when we exclude people and infringe upon their rights and beliefs. Americans should celebrate the separation of church and state as a key tenet of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. I say this as I do not see any religion who can lay claim on knowing what is best for our country. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist when he was President and he is known as one of our greatest Presidents and founding fathers having penned the Declaration of Independence. Our current President is not a Muslim, but I ask one basic question – what if he was? In our country, it should not matter.
We should embrace our diversity and welcome people of all stripes. People of different ethnicities, races, genders, sexual preferences, religious beliefs should be welcomed into any group, especially your house of worship. Your religion will be celebrated the more inclusive you are. To do the opposite, will drive people away. When faith leaders denigrate other groups or say someone is less righteous because of sexual preferences, it tunes people out. They will tend to vote with their feet. Some churches are in trouble because of this. They need to be more welcoming to win people back. We are all fixer-uppers. We all have our imperfections. The more the church leadership understands this, we can focus less on our differences and more or our similarities.
Let me close with something I have written before. In the Christian bible, Jesus tended to hang out with the disenfranchised. He was inclusive during His time on earth. In fact, His temper sometimes was directed at Church leaders when they were not doing their duties in the manner He felt was appropriate. His upsetting the gambling tables in the Church is one example that comes to mind. To my way of thinking, if Jesus can hang with all kinds of people, then I think it is the least we could do.