Okay, it isn’t actually my church. It’s a friend’s church. And it is a prayer at the church building, not during a gathering of the church.
But yes, I did invite a Muslim to offer a prayer at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Project, an interfaith observance of the life and legacy of Dr. King, to be held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at a Christian church.
Right now some of my friends are saying, “You did what?” while others are thinking, “Dude, what’s the big deal?”
So first let me acknowledge that this type of thing does make a lot of people uncomfortable. Religious diversity in a Gallup poll or television documentary is one thing. Religious diversity in your own community is something else. In your own church? That’ll push a few buttons, won’t it?
Many of us have been used to thinking of America as a Christian nation. After all, some 76 percent of us identify ourselves as Christians, at least in name.1
Since 1965, however, immigration policy in the United States has created an incredibly diverse religious landscape. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, among others, have taken their place alongside Christianity and Judaism as permanent features of American life.
There are now more Muslims than Episcopalians in the United States, and about the same number of Muslims and Jews, six million.2
My own community, a suburb of Indianapolis, is 13 percent minority, including immigrants from all over the world. There are at least 80 primary languages spoken here. And while there are still far more churches than any other house of worship, there are many Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Buddhists, and, yes, plenty of “nones.”
So I and my event co-planners faced a question: Can we organize a gathering that truly represents our community and invite only Christians to participate?
While you mull that over, keep in mind that participation requires representation. If we invited people of other faiths to attend but offered them no voice, they would be mere spectators at the event as if they were merely guests in our society.
Still, did the invitation have to include an offer to pray?
No, it didn’t. In fact, we didn’t have to invite anyone to pray. We could have created an entirely secular observance.
That didn’t feel right either. We are celebrating the legacy of a Christian minister, one of the best known of the 20th century. King made the gospel come alive for us. Could we remember that gift and not thank God for it?
Sure, we could have structured the event so that only Christians prayed. That might have relieved the tension some of us may feel.
Ironically, those who are the most uncomfortable would probably be those who holler loudest when their children are not allowed to pray at a high school commencement ceremony. If there is freedom to pray, it must be freedom for everyone.
Even so, it may be a bit challenging to see a non-Christian stand on the platform of a Christian church and offer a prayer. This puts our brave talk about unity and tolerance to a real-world test.
So we remind ourselves that this is a community event to celebrate the vision of a society where all people are treated equally, where our children will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
On this day, of all days, people of every faith should be able to come together, if only for one hour, to experience the dream of reconciliation, unity, and peace.