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Building Interfaith Bridges with the Homeless

by Ethan Bodnaruk

Beyond Proselytizing the Poor

It was an honor to attend the 9th World Assembly of Religions for Peace in Vienna last month as a member of the North American Interfaith Youth Network (NAIYN). The theme of the Assembly was “Welcoming the Other.” Hearing about the rise of social hostility, along with quantitative metrics describing its relationship to peace and prosperity, particularly caught my attention. It reminded me of Pope Francis expressions of concern about capitalism and rising inequality (heres a figure showing the drastic rise within countries).

Coming home, I wondered – What could link the theme of “Welcoming the Other” to the work of reducing tension and hostility at home caused by rising inequality?

Jennifer Grout – Photo: TwitterOver the next few weeks I kept my eyes open for connections between these two ideas. I came across a story about Jennifer Grout delving into the arts and rich cultures of the “Other,” passionately and skillfully performing classical Arabic music as the first American on Arabs Got Talent. Her performances were moving, accentuated by the judges’ conversion from skepticism to surprise, affection, and deep appreciation. Her singing is a great example of how music can touch the soul – never more, perhaps, than when connecting people across cultures and breaking our expectations and stereotypes.

Another way to experience the “Other” is through food! Two close Muslim friends of mine are graduate students – one American and one Iranian – and this past Ramadan we enjoyed sharing an Iftar potluck with other friends. I surprised them by making a delicious Persian pomegranate stew still requested today.

A pomegranate – Photo: WikipediaBut how do these cultural experiences of “Welcoming the Other” connect with the topic of rising inequality and tension? As I pondered this, several experiences came to mind of attempts I had found lacking.

My first “reaching out” memory was of a small Christian group I was in during college: we regularly visited homeless people. Later I felt called to actually experience life on the streets for a couple of weeks, also hoping to deepen friendships made during those visits. I didn't meet anyone I knew at first and felt isolated, out of place. Perhaps this was an experience of the “Other”; I was immensely grateful when I was taken under the wing of a man affectionately known as The Bear.

In the daily peripatetic journey to find free food, I quickly found that many churches provide food mostly to proselytize. One day a group of men drove up and zealously confronted people on the sidewalk about their obviously sinful homeless lives, then led them through an emotional prayer to accept Jesus. The men congratulated each other with a bunch of high fives and drove off. I was left wondering whether these particular street evangelizers pondered the structural causes of homelessness, and if their actions actually reinforced the homeless as “Other.”

Another memory from my time on the streets surfaced. I visited an extremely charismatic church that caught my eye, in which everyone but me was dressed in formal attire. Many were previously homeless and heavily tattooed. I enjoyed the spontaneity, newness, and raw emotion – I had a lot of feelings to release, so I went with the flow. Later I learned the church was fundamentalist and ran a strict Bible boot-camp to rehabilitate homeless people.

It obviously worked for some, but my friends outside the church were concerned about isolation and indoctrination. Where were the mainline churches, and what can be done about restrictive religion being forced on the Other?

I’ve come back from Vienna heartened that inequality and human suffering are being taken seriously by people who are not bent on proselytizing – who care about non-coercively nurturing our relationships with one another. Maybe the interfaith movement can Welcome the Other in situations where religion has wounded people.

Interfaith activists understand the bright and dark sides of religion and can relate to matters of faith and the longing for wholeness we feel without becoming judgmental. Maybe the interfaith movement can Welcome the Other by helping heal the wounds and inequalities of homelessness.