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Engaging in Something Marvelous: a Non-Muslim Learns from His Ramadan Fast

Kevin Childress

By Kevin Childress

There simply was no diversity in the small southern town I grew up in. Virtually 100 percent of the population was white, middle-class Baptists. The most “exotic” people in town were a small number of Lutherans, including my close friend Laura and her family. Hearing how people talked about Lutherans, I wanted to defend them, and I started seeing myself as an outsider like them. From that time onward I have identified with outsiders.

As an adult, my life has taken me around the world (for example, I lived in Armenia for two years, working with the Peace Corps). I’ve been to Egypt, Turkey, Russia, India, and all over Eastern and Western Europe. And in all these places I have witnessed expressions of hatred and superiority that one group of people directs at another. No country is free of it. But in those same countries I witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness, sympathy and respect for outsiders.

When I finally got around to it in my 40s, I went back to school to formally study comparative religion (the comparison of doctrines and practices of the world’s faith traditions). It was something I had always wanted to learn more about, perhaps because of my commitment to respecting outsiders. I never wanted to solely study a particular religion, as it is the diversity in particular that most fascinates me, and what I wanted to center my work around.

Two years ago, I read a blog by Lisa Sharon Harper (a columnist with “Sojourners”) about her experiences as a non-Muslim fasting during Ramadan. The idea was appealing to me, as it clearly conveyed a message of respect for, and solidarity with, Muslims.

When I decided to fast last Ramadan, I posted something about it on my Facebook page. That was all I initially said about it to anyone. I prepared myself for fasting with what I thought was practical planning – figuring out schedules for when I would prepare and eat food. I am such an organized person (one of those people with a Master List of smaller “to do” lists), and I dove into it with enthusiasm. For a while it was pretty easy. And I learned a lot of tips. For one thing, it helps to have ready-to-eat food on hand. Late at night, I sometimes just didn’t have the energy to cook. And it’s important to be sure to eat when the time arrives – missing the mealtime window can make for a very uncomfortable day.

Some people say they gain spiritual insight during fasting. It might sound odd, but I have to say that during my fasting time, I found myself reading more poetry, and thinking about the world around me in poetic terms. I rarely ever write poetry, but during fasting I found myself writing haikus about the smell of summer rain, or the intricacies of a well-made shirt. I developed a kind of stillness in my mind that allowed me to “unpack” an idea, to hold it to the light and attempt to see it more clearly. Some people might joke I was simply experiencing protein deficiency or something, but I don’t think that was it. I think I was just a little closer to what I call the “eternal,” and what most people call God.

My post on Facebook attracted a bit of attention. Muslim friends sent me the obligatory “High Five” comments in the beginning, and checked in with me on occasion to see how I was faring. Muslims I hadn’t met before sent me friend requests, because they’d seen something about my fasting on their friends’ Facebook pages. As Ramadan went on, people started sharing with me how fasting was altering their views of the world and themselves, often (to my surprise and pleasure) using poetry as a means of communicating their feelings. One friend on Facebook quoted the Sufi poet Rumi, who compared the fasting person to a musical instrument ready to be played: “We are lutes, no more, no less.” I had often heard that fasting during Ramadan brought Muslims together, spiritually and emotionally (through their shared experience), and physically (in breaking the fast every evening). It was interesting to discover the same type of thing happening virtually.

My first invitation to attend an Iftar (the evening breaking of the fast) came from someone I had met on Facebook. At that Iftar, I met numerous people who in turn invited me to other Iftars. Thanks to these invitations, I could easily have gone to a different one every evening, and quite a few of them were interfaith iftars – some hosted by city politicians who weren’t even Muslim. And it was in the gathering together with people to break the fast that I knew I was engaging in something marvelous and important: around the table, as we met and got to know each other, we changed from strangers into neighbors.

As Ramadan continued, what started to be a problem for me were encounters with people who didn’t know I was fasting. I would show up at someone’s home and they would have this lovely lunch laid out. “I made lasagna because I know how much you love it,” a friend said. It reminded me of a time in Armenia when a poor village family had invited me over for a meal. In honor of my visit, they had killed their only goat, and fried its liver. They brought the dish to the table with such pride, and I remember feeling queasy just looking at it. But, in knowing what it cost them – and what it meant to them to serve me – I ate as much of it as I could. So when faced with the lasagna, I made a quick decision to eat it. Later I felt bad about breaking my fast, thinking I had failed. But then I realized I had sacrificed something that was important to me in order to offer my respect and regard for another person. Maybe I hadn’t failed after all.

For the rest of Ramadan, I fasted as much as I could, but I broke fast when situations like this arose. A Muslim would never make such concessions, of course – and they would rarely face such situations anyway, since most people know they are fasting. But for me, my fasting had been successful because it prompted me to be mindful of food, and to think about the function of food in society. The sharing of food can break the ice between strangers; it can be a gesture of hospitality, and an indication of trust and respect. And it certainly helps us to celebrate joyful moments in our lives, when people come together around a table to share a meal.

Beside fasting during Ramadan, there are countless ways a person can join in experiencing the faiths of other people. Guests are warmly welcomed at the Jewish Passover Seder, Christmas Mass, a Sikh Diwan, or the annual Hindu Diwali. But what I learned from my Ramadan experience is something that perhaps leaders and members of faith communities should keep in mind: for the people outside your doors who are interested in sharing your faith – they need to be invited. An implicit and generic “We are always open to visitors” isn’t really enough. Much better to issue an explicit and specific invitation, a “We invite you to join us next Tuesday” type of thing. Like a meal, the sharing of faiths requires a proper invitation.

About the author: Kevin Childress is the sole proprietor of SocialNet Works, LLC.  While his academic background is in Comparative Religion, his professional background is in Business, with more than a decade of experience in Information Technology, Public/Media & Donor Relations, Executive Management and Finance.  He has extensive knowledge of digital imaging, including video production and, of course, all avenues of social media.  A 22-year resident of Manhattan, Kevin has worked with religious and civic leaders in every borough of New York City.

The New Face of Interfaith Dialogue

Mitch Randall, left, and Imam Imad Enchassi greet each other before a panel discussion on Sept. 11, 2011 in Norman, Okla. (Photo by Kyle Phillips of The Norman Transcript)

by Jeff Brumley
from Associated Baptist Press

Interfaith dialogue is on the rise, not just in formal conversations led by judicatory leaders but in local communities where friendships forge as ministers of various faiths work together for common goals amid increasing religious diversity in the Bible belt.

Kyle Reese, pastor at Hendricks Avenue Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., has been highly visible in community interfaith efforts, especially in his dialogue with Muslim and Jewish spiritual leaders. He refers to Imam Joe Bradford as “best friend” – as he does a rabbi and an Orthodox Christian priest.

Pastor Steve Jones, who made headlines working with Jews and Muslims to tackle social injustice in Birmingham, Ala., said the same about Rabbi Jonathan Miller. “I am closer to these guys than I am with many other Baptist ministers,” said Jones, the senior pastor of Southside Baptist Church.

Click here to read the full article

Jimmy Carter: the Role of Faith in Peace Talks, Politics, and Private Devotions

by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
from Huffington Post

Jimmy Carter is the 39th president of the United States, founder of the Carter Center and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He has authored many books, the most recent being “Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President.” In this wide-ranging interview, HuffPost’s Senior Religion Editor spoke to President Carter by phone about the role faith played in the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, the time of his greatest alienation from God, faith in the White House and his personal daily devotional practice.

In addition to being a Governor of Georgia and President of the United States, you are known as a Sunday School teacher. Are you comfortable with that identity?

I started teaching Sunday school when I was 18 at the Navel Academy Chapel. I led services when we were out at sea while I was in the navy; taught Sunday school 14 times when I was U.S. President at First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. I just finished my 650th lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church, so you might say I have been a Sunday school teacher all my life.

Who were some of your most influential religious teachers?

Well, my father was the main one. He was a Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher, and I started going to Sunday school when I was 3. He shaped my early knowledge of Jesus, and I was baptized as a Christian when I was 11 years old.

Later, Billy Graham was probably the closest one to me. I believed what my father taught me about the separation of church and state, so when I was President I never invited Billy Graham to have services in the White House because I didn’t think that was appropriate. He was injured a little bit, until I explained it to him.

Among the theologians, I think Paul Tillich is probably the one I have read the most because he shaped my thoughts about the relation between religion and politics and the fact that religious faith was not incompatible with political service. I tried to apply my religious beliefs when I was governor and later president without being ostentatious about it.

But I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about theology. Most of my knowledge comes out of my experience and the lessons in the Bible. Every Sunday I’m home I teach 45 minutes and we boiled them down to one page for the new book, “Through the Year with Jimmy Carter.”

Click here to read the full article

Historical Baptist Calls for Religious Freedom

Religious-freedom_by Alejandro Gonzalez, USA Todayby Robert P. Sellers
CPWR trustee

Many persons feel they “know” Baptists as a group because of the unkind words of a few Baptist individuals or denominations.  Indeed, some very public Baptists have made statements highly offensive to persons of other faiths—and, perhaps surprisingly, also disturbing and embarrassing for historic Baptists who remember their roots and denounce such judgmental, unkind sentiments.  Baptists, like adherents of all religions,are a multicultural and wildly diverse lot, exhibiting different personal, social, political, and theological perspectives.

Those Baptists, however, who do recall their historic values[1] will courageously champion religious freedom.  Thomas Helwys (1550?-1616?) sixteenth-century Baptist forebear, opposed the religious and political establishment in England and separated his congregation from the Anglican Church.  In 1612, he wrote that “[James 1] has no authority as a king but in earthly causes . . . [for] men’s religion to god is between God and themselves. . . .  Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”[2]  For his viewpoint, Helwys was thrown into London’s Newgate Prison, in whose damp cell he died around 1616.  His voice had been silenced, but some historians say his pronouncement “was the first statement of radical religious freedom to be published in English.”[3]

Roger Williams (1603?-1683), another English cleric, “campaigned against the enforcement of religious conformity by civil authorities”[4] in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but in 1635 was exiled “under pain of death for his religious convictions.”[5]  Establishing the first Baptist church of America in the colony of Rhode Island, he wrote a tract in 1652 that inquired “whether or not such as may hold forth other worships or religions, Jews, Turks, or anti-Christians, may not be peaceable and quiet subjects, loving and helpful neighbors, fair and just dealers, true and loyal to the civil government.”[6]  The question was rhetorical, because Williams believed all persons could be peaceful, loving, helpful, just, and loyal neighbors.

Eighteenth-century Baptist Isaac Backus (1724-1806) lobbied the first Continental Congress in 1774 and came away with a resolution, signed by John Hancock, that “acknowledged the Congress’s ‘sincere wish’ to extend ‘civil and religious liberty’ to every denomination.”[7]  John Leland (1754-1841), a fellow Baptist New Englander,[8] “at a legendary meeting near Orange, Virginia, . . . threatened to oppose [James] Madison as a candidate for Virginia’s ratifying convention and agreed not to do so only after extracting a promise that Madison would pursue explicit protection for religion in the Bill of Rights”[9]—a pledge that led to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[10]  Honoring this spirit of freedom, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty—begun in 1936 in Washington, D.C. and funded by 14 national Baptist bodies—operates today as the “best-known Baptist agency lobbying in behalf of religious liberty.”[11]

Today many Baptists who perceive themselves as “free and faithful” Baptists in this historic way are involved in interfaith dialogue, cooperation, and friendship.  In Phoenix, for example, Paul Eppinger creatively guides the Arizona Interfaith Movement,[12] an organization of 21 religious groups that convenes Faith Forums on topics like “forgiveness and reconciliation” or “texts of terror in scriptures of faith,” hosts multi-religious artists in Voices of Faith Concerts, builds Habitat for Humanity interfaith houses, and sells Golden Rule interfaith Arizona license plates.

In Nashville, visionary Robert Parham directs the Baptist Center for Ethics,[13] an agency that has recently produced two highly-regarded documentary films that tell important stories of interfaith engagement: Different Books, Common Word, which recounts five examples of Baptist-Muslim relationship-building in America after 9-11, and Sacred Texts, Social Duty, which focuses on various Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives of Chicagoans who discuss government taxation.

In addition to individual Baptists like Eppinger and Parham who value our pluralistic society, “free and faithful” Baptist congregations across the country are reaching out to persons across religious boundaries.  Members of First Baptist Church, Seattle, have worked alongside Ahmadiyya Muslims to feed the homeless in their community, and were invited guests at the opening of a new mosque in Redmond, California.  Parishioners of Wilshire Baptist Church and Temple Emanu-el in Dallas have a decade-long relationship of worship pulpit-exchange and congregational shared meals, and are embarking on a Jewish-Baptist exploration of the Holy Land in April 2012 co-led by their rabbi and pastor.  In Norman, Oklahoma, when local Muslims were afraid after 9/11 that violent reactions might be aimed at their mosque or families, Baptists from North Haven Church offered them protection, comfort, and even rides to the supermarket for Muslim women who felt too intimidated to go outside of their houses alone.

Beyond these local instances of neighborliness and solidarity there are also institutional expressions of Baptist interfaith commitment.  Five North American Baptist conventions joined with the Islamic Society of North America to co-sponsor the first National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue in Boston in January 2008, and the second national conference and a series of regional workshops are being projected for 2012.  Finally, the Baptist World Alliance[14],which represents 218 member Baptist bodies in 120 countries, was so struck by the peaceful initiative of 138 global Muslim scholars who in 2007 crafted A Common Word between Us and You that they not only sent a very thoughtful response that appears on the official website of A Common Word,[15] but also established a permanent Commission on Baptist-Muslim Relations.

It cannot be denied that Baptists on the whole still have many sins of intolerance and unkindness for which to repent.  Nonetheless, there are historic Baptists who treasure their heritage of religious freedom and whose efforts to relate to and learn from persons of other faiths should be recognized.  It is the stories of these good neighbor Baptists that I hope will be told and remembered.

Robert P. Sellers is professor of missions and theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and represents Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA.  He is a member of the Board of Trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Notes on Sources


[1] The historical information in this paragraph was originally published in Robert P. Sellers, “What Baptist Traditions Teach Us about Loving our Neighbors,” American Baptist Quarterly 223 (Spring 2009): 113-115.

[2] Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, quoted in William H. Brackney, A Genetic History of Baptist Thought  (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2004), 17.

[3] Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2003), 9.

[4] Robert Jewett, Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 21.

[5] Daniel L. Buttry, Interfaith Heroes (Canton: Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, 2008), 33.

[6] Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed, quoted in Leonard, Baptist Ways, 76.

[7] Ibid., 124.

[8] Brent Walker, Church-State Matters: Fighting for Religious Liberty in our Nation’s Capital (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2008), 15.

[9] Joseph M. Dawson, Baptists and the American Republic, quoted in Ibid.

[10] The U.S. Constitution, accessed at http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html.

[11] Leonard, Baptist Ways, 409.

[12] Discover information about Paul Eppinger and the Arizona Interfaith Movement at www.azifm.org.

[13] See www.ethicsdaily.com for more about the work of Robert Parham and the Baptist Center for Ethics.

[14] Statistics on the membership of BWA can be found at www.bwanet.org.