As most fulltime pastors with a congregation of more than 1,200 active members, I am very busy. I can barely find time for myself to relax—to take on another responsibility beyond my pastoral responsibilities is almost unthinkable. Becoming a part of ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship was an act of faith. I was feeling rather uncertain about my participation; but deep down, I felt I needed the experience, and I was right.
These nine months of sharing with Jews, Muslims, and other Christians has been a tremendous outpouring of understanding for other religions. As a Christian, I have always felt a need to learn what I don’t know and to respect other faith beliefs and traditions. Being afforded the opportunity to visit a mosque, a synagogue, and a Catholic retreat center and experience they encounter the divine (or just ‘worship’) was life changing.
Prayer in a Mosque
Experiencing the worship and teachings during the Muslim Friday midday prayer, jummah—where men and women sit in designated areas in the worship space(?)—was important for me to see. As they prayed to God, whom they call Allah, it was very sobering. Although I am a Christian, I felt at that moment connected to my Muslim brothers, because there is only one God of the universe, and we were all praying to Him together. They were praying in Arabic and I in English.
Not only did I experience different faith beliefs, but I also had a chance to experience white and Black people sharing together as one. No racism, no prejudices, no divisions—just people sharing and interacting as God intended from the beginning.
I feel that interreligious engagement is a must for any person who is a leader in their denomination. God did not intend for us to be islands or isolated people but just the opposite: we are all His children. In the book of Genesis, we are told to multiply and be fruitful. My interpretation extends beyond procreation. I feel God expects us to grow with one another and to learn from one another. What if Jews, Muslims, and Christians came together, identifying the common ground that exists among us? I believe instant growth and fruitfulness would be realized. If God allowed us all to exist, it is clear to me that He has something else in mind beyond focusing on our differences and separations.
The communities we serve and are stationed in are multi-religious. In order to serve people and the community better, we cannot afford to be one dimensional in religious thought; we must have a healthy appreciation for other faith traditions. In my community, people from various faith traditions are present. We even have members in our church who have family members connected to faith beliefs outside of Christianity. I feel every Christian should know something about other religions so we can be more inclusive.
Community in a Synagogue
In this fellowship I have been able to learn about different religions and the experiences of the people who adhere to those religions. For example, I realized African Americans have strong parallels with Jewish people. We were both exploited and grossly mistreated by some Europeans.
I admire the Jewish people’s sense of worship and how they preserve their history. The synagogues I visited during the fellowship were spaces of profound worship and holders of the great history and legacy of the community. The history preserved in the synagogues is taught to their children with deliberateness and intentionality. I love their commitment in making certain that their history can be transported to the next generation with clarity and accuracy.
Holy Silence in a Chapel
During the fellowship I also had the opportunity to visit Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center, which is a Catholic ministry of the Sisters of Bon Secours. From the time I stepped on the grounds of the center and walked through the corridors of the center, I felt God’s presence. The beauty of the grounds in the rain proclaimed “GOD” and “HOLY SPIRIT.” Once I entered the center, I spent 15 minutes in the retreat center’s chapel where they hold Mass. The chapel reminded me of something greater than a chapel, but a sanctuary wrapped in HOLINESS. I was the only person in the chapel, but the beauty and holy silence of allowed me to experience God afresh. I have grown to appreciate the reverence for God that is displayed in the Catholic Church and liturgy.
Overall, the fellowship experience has been one that has added and enhanced my life. I made sacrifices and rearranged my personal schedule to participate in each session. I can say it was worth it all and I would do it again.
Pastor James Carter is a member of Ark Church in Baltimore and was a member of the 2022 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about the ICJS Congregational Leaders programs here.
Opinions expressed in blog posts by the ICJS Congregational Leader Fellows are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives.