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An Unexpected Vocation

Finding Faithfulness in a New Calling

An Unexpected Vocation 

by Kevin Singer 

I remember like it was yesterday; cracking open an old Baptist hymnal to the first hymn, written in 1759. “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace” the first verse begins. The final refrain ends in resounding fashion: “Take my heart Lord, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” It was 2007, the summer after my sophomore year at Northern Illinois University (NIU), and I was working for the pastor at a small Southern Baptist church just outside of DeKalb. Reading the words of this famous hymn, I suddenly felt the “call to ministry” I had heard other Christians talk about—an unexplainable certainty that my vocation was to serve God.

My friend Aaron and me baptizing Jenny. 

My friend Aaron and me baptizing Jenny. 

As soon as I graduated from NIU in May 2009, I started drawing up plans for a new church I would plant in a strip mall just across the street from NIU’s residence halls. Over the next two years, I saw the church grow from 5 to 75 students, and I had the privilege of baptizing 12 of them in a horse trough as students walking to their classes looked on. Some even stuck around to watch and joined in with applause as students were raised one by one from the water and embraced by their parents and friends. It was the most meaningful and thrilling work I had ever been a part of in my life. Like never before, I sensed my purpose in life was coming to fruition.

In 2012, I had the chance to plant another church. This time it would be on the campus of the College of DuPage, a large community college located in the Western suburbs of Chicago. Simultaneously, I worked remotely on a master’s degree in theology from a Southern Baptist seminary in Kansas City. At the time, I expected this degree would enhance my knowledge of the Bible and sharpen my preaching for a lifetime of ministry. I never expected it would help me secure a job that would change the course of my personal and professional life.

One day, I overheard someone mention DuPage was offering Old and New Testament courses. “I could teach those,” I thought. I was also eager to get more involved on the campus where my new church hosted services on the weekends. So I applied to be an adjunct professor. Thanks to a friend who personally recommended me, I received an interview within just a few weeks. I didn’t know what to expect; my resume was saturated with teaching experience, but only in Christian ministry settings. I hoped this would be enough to teach Old and New Testament. Therefore it came as a complete shock when I was offered a position teaching two sections of world religions that upcoming fall. I hadn’t given non-Christian religions a second thought since the world religions course I took at NIU as a sophomore. Doing my best not to seem apprehensive, I agreed. I suspected this was a stepping stone to teaching Old and New Testament. What was one semester of world religion anyway?

One semester turned into two, then three, and now it has been fourteen semesters of teaching what has become my favorite class. I eventually got the chance to teach New Testament, but to be honest I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. In ways that I could  never have imagined, studying and teaching the religions of the world strengthened my faith. It prompted me to ask questions and explore contours of my Evangelical tradition that I never would have otherwise.

For example, studying the divine embodiment of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism) prompted me to investigate how the divine embodiment of Jesus Christ was both similar and different. Studying the Jain doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) inspired me to revisit passages in the Bible that discuss creation-care. Studying the Dao De Jing (Daoism) gave me a fresh curiosity for biblical poetry and wisdom literature. My interreligious learning didn’t just produce new questions and possibilities, but illuminated problems within my own tradition.  

Lessons from a Hindu Guru

Guru Brindiban Bihari Das of the International Nimbarka Society in Kolkata and me. 

Guru Brindiban Bihari Das of the International Nimbarka Society in Kolkata and me. 

In the summer of 2015, I visited West Bengal in India, staying at an ashram on the banks of the Ganges River with a guru who ascribes to the Nimbarka tradition of Hinduism. During my visit, I was struck by the level of devotion he demonstrated toward his sisyas (disciples) and their spiritual development. Anywhere he went, he brought his sisyas along. He drew teaching moments out of everyday events and circumstances. When they ventured outside of the ashram together, he never postured himself above them in public. On one occasion, they all piled into the backseat of a taxi until they were virtually sitting on top of one another. Even though it would be a 45-minute drive, the guru didn’t seem to mind.  

I couldn’t help but wonder why I had not seen a similar kind of devotion from many evangelical pastors toward the disciples in their “flock.” The New Testament Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) describe Jesus spending nearly every waking moment with his disciples as they traveled through Judea and Samaria sharing the Gospel. His teachings incorporated familiar cultural imagery or phenomena that they happened to encounter along the way. Furthermore, in Paul’s New Testament Epistles (letters), one discovers an impressive level of devotion shown by Paul toward his disciple, Timothy.

Because of my experiences at the ashram, I discovered that something important had been lost in Evangelical Christianity that needed recovery. A typical evangelical pastor spends most of his or her time performing tasks in isolation instead of spending time with people. Even then, most of the time spent with others is devoted to their church’s administrative needs. As a result, most practicing evangelical Christian adults claim that they do not meet with a spiritual mentor as part of their discipleship efforts. In addition, I recognized the guru embodied much of what had intrigued me about Jesus Christ; I wondered how Evangelicalism might change for the better if every pastor committed themselves to their budding ministry leaders as this guru did his sisyas.

Embracing Interfaith

Some evangelicals might think taking other religions seriously is strange or even unfaithful. After all, isn’t the Bible sufficient “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”? (2 Timothy 3:16-17; emphasis mine). I believe it is. However, I also believe what is so clearly not featured in biblical scripture can entice us to become more competent students of scripture. To put it simply, sometimes the things we least expect drive us back to the best parts of our own tradition with fresh ideas to enliven our faith.

Studying other religions dismantled many of the fears and misconceptions I had. Contrary to the norms of my tradition, I am now overjoyed to welcome the followers of other religions into my home and to be welcomed into theirs. I see the Imago Dei (Image of God) in them, and this alone is enough for me to listen attentively, take their felt needs seriously, and treat them with dignity. I am no longer afraid to talk about their religious beliefs with them, as I can now engage intelligently with their traditions without the fear of misrepresenting them. On almost every occasion when these conversations take place, a sense of relief comes over them. They are free to express their most deeply held beliefs, and they are in the presence of someone who has studied them and respects them. I’ve found that genuine friendship is developed a lot faster that way. Many evangelical Christians would agree that genuine friendship is the preferred place to start if the goal is to bear a testimony that is “gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:9).

Evangelical Role Models

One of my world religions classes visiting the Sri Venkateswara Swami (Hindu) temple in Aurora, Illinois.

One of my world religions classes visiting the Sri Venkateswara Swami (Hindu) temple in Aurora, Illinois.

In every world religion class I make a point to share my religious identity openly.  Many students are surprised to find out I am an evangelical Christian. “You’re so fair toward all of the religions,” they typically remark. One student told me, “I genuinely had a hard time figuring out which religion you follow. You seem so passionate about all of them!” Despite the openness some students recognize in me, I anticipate others might still be unsure whether they can trust me. Therefore I make a note to talk about the ways that studying the world’s religions has benefited me as an Christian, a thinker, a citizen, and aspiring scholar. My hope is that they will realize being charitable toward the claims of other religions does not preclude one from being faithful to their own tradition.

Observing my fellow evangelicals speaking rashly and haphazardly about the claims of other religions and their followers makes me uncomfortable. Particularly common are inaccurate (and convenient) generalizations and stereotypes such as “all religions besides Christianity believe in a salvation merited by good deeds,” and “Islam is an inherently violent religion.” I consider instances like these as bearing false witness about others, which God forbids (Exodus 20:16). Evangelicals are especially sensitive when others (like the “liberal media”) mischaracterize or caricature our beliefs. Why then do we think it permissible to do this about other’s religious beliefs? It is not by ignoring, misrepresenting, or slandering other religions and their followers that we demonstrate Christian faithfulness and attract people to our Savior. It’s by doing the exact opposite.

Interfaith chapel window – Photo:  Ryan Hyde, Cc.2.0

Interfaith chapel window – Photo: Ryan Hyde, Cc.2.0

Religious conservatives can help ensure that social justice and inclusion efforts are founded on religious/moral and not just civic/political rationale; they can help ensure religion is valued for religion’s sake, and not just as a tool for fighting political battles and religious literacy beyond the lowest common denominators  of each tradition remains a central pursuit.  

It requires more evangelical models to rise up and set a course for others to follow. In higher education, it requires us to recognize how we address religious diversity determines the notoriety of our faith and its message in the years to come. We have made many mistakes; many in our tribe are guilty of belittling or ignoring the needs of our religious neighbors out of fear. However, we have an opportunity, perhaps now more than ever, to change our course and ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt. I never imagined that I would play a role in this, but I’m committed to this pursuit. I’ve come to realize a “calling” doesn’t solely pertain to vocational ministry. It is also what you can’t imagine yourself not doing, and where you can have the greatest impact as an ambassador for Christ. I never imagined my calling would be teaching world religions and promoting interreligious dialogue. But then again, as Christians like to say, “God works in mysterious ways.”