The Church Engaging Our Multi-Religious World: Ever-Serving, Ever-Reforming, Ever-Reconciling

[1] The followers of God have inhabited a multi-religious world ever since Abraham moved his household to Canaan, and centuries later when Jesus and his disciples preached the gospel amidst various forms of polytheism and paganism. The followers of Martin Luther’s interpretation of the gospel not only navigated tensions with the Roman Catholic Church. They lived with Jewish neighbors and under the shadow of potential Turkish Muslim invasion. Now, 500 years later, what does it mean for Lutherans in North America (and elsewhere) to be an ever-reforming church in an increasingly diverse cultural and religious society?

[2] Two brief stories can help us begin to answer the question—and illuminate the evolving role in social justice causes by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In the 2005 aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, ELCA Illinois Pastor Jim Honig was working with DuPage United, a local community organization, to fill and send a truckload of relief supplies to the Gulf Coast. Honig sums up the results: “While we received a consistent trickle of support from local Christian congregations, it was the Muslim girls’ school in Lombard who appeared one afternoon with a rented van and a couple of minivans filled to the brim with supplies they had collected from their institutions.”1

[2] Flash forward to 2011: a DuPage County Muslim association, MECCA, had bought land for a mosque and community center. The County Planning and Zoning Commission responded by imposing restrictions to block construction. Pastor Honig, along with other Christian clergy and lay people, testified publically in favor of MECCA’s plans, and eventually the group was able to go forward. When the Muslims broke ground for the MECCA Center in 2012, it was Lutheran pastor Honig whom they invited to be their speaker and honored guest.

[3] The inter-religious outreach to Katrina victims made evident that Christians, as well as those of other traditions, heed the call of faith. The Christians in DuPage County lived out Luther’s explanation2 of the commandment against bearing false witness by defending and standing in solidarity with the Muslim group. Their “speaking well” of their Muslim neighbors and putting “the most charitable construction” on their aspirations helped achieve the goal of a Muslim worship and community facility, which finally held its grand opening in April 2017.

What has been the ELCA’s track record of serving social justice causes across religious boundaries?

[4] For decades the Washington and New York offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have joined with such organizations as Catholic Charities, YWCA, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to lobby against budget cuts that will diminish the lives and rights of those most vulnerable in American society.3 Since 2003 the ELCA has had a major presence in the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI). Through NILI, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant executives find common ground and together lobby the United States government on behalf of “active, fair, and firm U.S. leadership for comprehensive, just, and lasting Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace.”4

[5] Such inter-religious cooperation has also provided a united and national rebuttal of hate speech and widespread stereotyping of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and others. When anti-Muslim posters appeared in the subway tunnels of New York City and Washington, D.C., an immediate response came from another ELCA affiliate, the interfaith Shoulder-to-Shoulder coalition. In the aftermath of the divisive 2016 presidential campaign, the ELCA was represented at the group’s press conference on November 19, 2016, and co-sponsored a press release proclaiming religious freedom and respect for all people to be at the center of American values. Further, this coalition of 168 diverse religious institutions condemned hate crimes against Muslims and pledged to “stand shoulder to shoulder with each other in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters.”5

[6] These are only a few illustrations of how the ELCA works for social justice with both other faith groups and secular agencies—and lives out the commitment to be ever serving. At the grassroots level the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago has joined with over 25 organizations (such as the 57th Street Meeting of Friends, KAM Isaiah Israel, and Sirat and St. Makarios Orthodox Mission) to develop and support their neighborhood Hyde Park Refugee Project. Since October 2016 the effort has successfully housed and resettled two refugee families from Syria.6 In Washington State the multi-religious Faith Action Network (FAN) strives “for a just, compassionate, and sustainable world through community building, education, and courageous public action.” Co-director Paul Benz and Carol Jensen, chair of the Governing Board, are ELCA pastors. The group’s current Legislative Agenda includes such social justice concerns as funding mental health, maintaining the state’s Disability Lifeline program, passing gun safety legislation, and guarding the civil rights of the undocumented.7 In many other synods of the ELCA, church institutions and Lutheran individuals are active in inter-religious organizations cooperating on human rights, economic justice, peace-making, and care for the earth.8

What can we as a Lutheran church do better?

[7] From her vantage point as Program Coordinator for LSTC’s A Center of Christian-Muslim Relations for Peace and Justice (CCME), Sara Trumm encourages the ELCA to better educate itself as a church and as individuals. She believes we need to learn both about other religions and about social issues as they relate to biblical and ethical values. Having worked together for many years on congregational interfaith education, she and I agree that we need to provide experiential learning through direct encounters with people of other religious traditions—or at least to tell their concrete human stories. In an effort to do that better, CCME has provided opportunities through mosque visits, meals together, and joint creative arts events, as well as through academic learning events. Recently, CCME has become more active through social media and through informational mailings to alumni, such as the March 2017 two-page resource “Solidarity with Muslims.” The Center is presently sponsoring nine students for a pilot training program designed to empower faith leaders to combat Islamophobia. This training, called “Faith over Fear” is led by an Episcopal/Lutheran group in Seattle called Neighbors in Faith, two Muslim groups, and the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Campaign.9

[8] Another area for improvement is developing clearer and more congruent relationships with potential partner organizations at both national and local levels. Communication is not always clear, nor is matching leaders among groups that have very different hierarchies and organizing principles. In Chicago, when sending invitations to interfaith events, hosts are unsure which Lutheran group to contact – the churchwide office, the synod office, an area congregation, or the CCME at the seminary. As CCME strives to make advocacy connections, there seems to be no single clearinghouse. Instead, Sara finds herself reaching out to one organization at a time. While there are some large organizations with particular emphases (Interfaith Youth Core for colleges and universities, Parliament of World Religions for international concerns and gatherings, Council on American-Islamic Relations for civil rights, etc.), area congregations/communities are often unsure of where and how to share interfaith support.

[9] Even when effective inter-religious education and advocacy programs are in place, too few congregations seem to know about them—another example of the need to strengthen communication. LSTC student Fanya Burford-Berry, now serving as vicar at First Lutheran Church in DeKalb, Illinois, laments that even seminarians are too often unaware of what the denomination is doing to further inter-religious understand and shared social action. LSTC is fortunate to have a Center that focuses on interfaith and a context (Chicago) rich in interfaith opportunities. Buford-Berry recommends that CCME send its inter-religious mailings to all ELCA seminaries and their alumni, not just those from LSTC.10

[10] As one who works with future church professionals in a seminary setting, Sara Trumm thinks often about the need for the ELCA as a denomination to be intentional about grooming future inter-religious leaders. LSTC is preparing such leaders in specific areas, and the seminary will soon need to find a younger Islamic scholar with significant exposure to Christianity to take over the teaching load of our distinguished colleague, Dr. Ghulam-Haider Aasi, with whom I began co-teaching in 2007. On the national level the Harvard-affiliated Pluralism Project has committed itself to the issue. The Pluralism Project has as its primary mission, “Engaging, Educating, and Strengthening the Next Generation of Religious and Civic Leaders in the United States.” The student internship program helps achieve those goals.11 This essay will conclude by summarizing similar new efforts among ELCA seminaries and colleges.

[11] Another vital growth area for both Lutherans and our Christian partners is to learn to be guests as well as hosts. Much past inter-religious dialogue and social outreach has been driven, defined, and directed by the Christian participants. In an essay titled “New Realities, New Thinking,” LSTC professor Mark Swanson recounts the biblical precedents for giving and receiving hospitality and challenges Lutheran Christians to become willing to relinquish control and to experience the other’s welcome and planning.12

What obstacles and challenges do we face?

[12] When I asked my colleague Sara Trumm about current obstacles, she immediately mentioned the intense atmosphere of polarization we now operate in here in the United States. As an inter-religious leader at a Lutheran institution, she has had no trouble working with a wide variety of faith-based and secular organizations. But she finds the urban-rural and liberal-conservative divides more troubling for raising inter-religious awareness and support for advocacy within religious communities. At a time when more and more varied religious leaders are speaking out on political and social issues, there seems to be less consensus within particular faith groups. Additionally, even when the will to collaborate and serve is present, diverse faith groups can each be hampered by lack of initiative, vision, leadership, and funding—especially for moving beyond dialogue to shared social action.

[13] A related obstacle is the frequent mismatch of structure and hierarchy, for instance, when comparing Jewish and Christian congregations with Islamic mosques. LSTC graduate Joe Yucha serves as associate pastor of Faith Lutheran in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Engaged in grassroots organizing among Muslims and Christians since his seminary days, Yucha puts the difference this way:

With Christians, we can say “I belong to Faith Lutheran” which means we worship there as often as we can, we give money to the church, and we know the other members of the community there. With mosques, “membership” is very different. An individual can “belong” to multiple different mosques, and can worship wherever is most convenient. The position of an imam is often much less structured than that of a pastor, so communicating with the entire mosque is much different than having a pastor communicate with their church. The positive result of this is that more personal, one-on-one communication is needed…which is much more effective than an email blast anyway!13

[13] Regardless of their structures, most of the major religious groups in the United States share such justice values as caring for the widow and orphan, addressing wealth disparity, and preventing harm to the innocent during armed conflict. However, theological and ideological differences can affect joint efforts on specific issues. For example, some Muslim groups have resisted supporting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because of disagreement on such issues as free speech and family law. One organization that has to take such social differences into account is Minnesota’s Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, the largest and most inclusive interfaith public interest group in Minnesota. Its four Sponsoring Members are the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, and the Islamic Center of Minnesota. In spite of differences, the Coalition now has public policy statements and influences Minnesota legislation in such arenas as welfare reform, housing, health care, human rights, criminal justice, environmental stewardship, tax policy, ethics in government, gambling, economic justice, bias crimes, firearms regulation, and so forth.14

[14] Ideological differences can also come into play in local communities. For years Bethany Lutheran Church in the Minneapolis has served its very diverse Cedar Riverside neighborhood with a soup kitchen five days a week. It has also become very welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. More recently, Bethany was asked to share its building space with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on Islamic Relations. It was feared that agreeing to do so would inevitably lead to tensions between Christians openly tolerant of sexual orientation diversity and Muslims whose scripture and tradition can be interpreted to counter such tolerance. Eventually Bethany deliberated with the community on how best to live together as neighbors and decided to replace its rainbow-painted building decorations with a group of flags–a rainbow flag plus those representing Cedar Riverside’s diverse residents–and a mosaic showing both a rainbow and images of the people new to the neighborhood.15

What positive factors can empower us?

[15] A number of distinctive features of the Lutheran tradition and ELCA recent history can enliven our participation in work and advocacy for social justice. Martin Luther’s struggle to build a relationship with a loving God while interpreting the challenging words of Paul in Romans embodies the capacity to live with ambiguity and complexity. That capacity, coupled with the Lutheran Christian reliance on salvation by grace through faith, can free us to join others in serving the common good, even while acknowledging religious differences. The ELCA’s 1994 “Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community” is a fitting illustration of living with complexity. Through this declaration and subsequent dialogue and relationships, the ELCA has demonstrated the ability to rely on Martin Luther’s understanding of God’s reconciling work with humankind while at the same repudiating Luther’s harsh words toward the Jews.

[16] The ELCA social statements can guide such efforts by us as a denomination and as individuals working at the grassroots. For example, the 2004 ELCA message Living in a Time of Terrorism informed then-Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson’s public statements leading up to the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. Also pertinent is the long tradition of ecumenical and interfaith engagement by the ELCA and predecessor churches. The ELCA’s record of forging full communion relations with both the Reformed and Episcopal traditions, as well as the Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith with the Roman Catholics, bodes well for our ongoing dialogue and collaboration with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others.

[17] My own involvement with ELCA synod ecumenical and inter-religious committees began in the Metropolitan Minneapolis Synod in 1991, and has continued as my husband and I have lived successively in the North Carolina, Metro New York, and Metro Chicago synods. What I have observed is a gradual maturation of at least some inter-religious relationships, a maturation than can inform and strengthen our joint witness. The National Council of Churches Statement on Interfaith Relations and the Churches ends with six “Marks of Faithfulness.” Mark #5 is the assertion, “True relationship is rooted in accountability and respect”—with this elaboration: “We approach others in humility, not arrogance. In our relationships we will call ourselves and our partners to a mutual accountability. We will invite each other to join in building a world of love and justice, but we will also challenge each other’s unjust behavior. We can do both only from an attitude of mutual respect.”16

[18] I have had enough interfaith experience over the last 25 years to know that such mutual accountability is no easy accomplishment, for example, when American Jews and Christians seek ways to achieve a just and permanent peace for Israel and the Palestinians. However, when members of the ELCA Consultative Panels on Lutheran-Jewish and Lutheran-Muslim Relations collaborated on the 2016 case study book Engaging Others, Knowing Ourselves, we welcomed and benefited from the constructive criticism and actual editing suggestions from our Muslim and Jewish partners. For example, a Jewish scholar and rabbi guided revision of the section on Jewish-Christian marriage so that the text better reflected the diversity of practices among various branches of American Judaism.

What new initiatives can inspire hope?

[19] A search of the websites of ELCA synods and institutions yields numerous examples of collaboration with diverse secular and religious organizations. This essay concludes with three examples of new initiatives that can inspire hope for the future and demonstrate the potential for the Lutheran church locally, nationally and globally to be “ever-reconciling.” For several years a cluster of ELCA colleges have worked with each other and with Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core to further inter-religious engagement. In June 2016, 22 of the 26 ELCA colleges attended the twenty-second annual Vocation of a Lutheran College conference on the theme, “Preparing Global Leaders For A Religiously Diverse Society.” ELCA member Katie Bringman Baxter is Vice President of Program Strategy for Interfaith Youth Core. Her assessment is that “These campuses are excellent bridge zones in places with new influxes of refugees and increasing religious and racial diversity, drawing students who’ve never lived in as diverse a place as their campus.”17One such bridge zone was created by the Interfaith Allies group at California Lutheran University during Green Week in April 2013, when it sponsored a “Water Wise” campaign to encourage sustainable lifestyle practices.18

[20] A major new initiative that contributes to inter-religious cooperation is LSTC’s new Public Church curriculum, which “cultivates competencies for leadership in a public church that focuses on community engagement, public witness, and social transformation.”19 Within it the Public Church Fellows programs pairs LSTC students with social service organizations. Fanya K. Burford-Berry served with Chicago-based IMAN, Inner-City Muslim Action Network. Specifically, through phone calls and personal visits, she encouraged citizen attendance at weekly evening sessions entitled the “Grassroots Power Hour.”20 Residents of all genders, ages, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds come together to work on improving their neighborhoods and to discuss such issues as immigration rights. Burford-Berry says that she learned that it is “essential to convene people to leverage more power.”21

[21] Pastor Joe Yucha’s experience as an LSTC Public Church Fellow demonstrates the value of local partnerships among Christians and Muslims. As one response to hate speech and discrimination against Muslim neighbors, he worked with DuPage United (Illinois) on a solidarity campaign. In February 2016 the first event, “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor,” drew 700 participants. A combination of plenary speeches and one-to-one interaction “gave people the chance to simply get to know someone who they may never had the opportunity to talk with before.” Now that he’s serving as pastor of a local congregation, Yucha is part of an ongoing educational and experiential program to strengthen relationships with Islam and the Muslim community.22

[22] It is not only Public Church Fellows who are experiencing inter-religious life as part of their seminary preparation. Evan Mayhew’s internship project at New Life Lutheran Church in Bolingbrook, Illinois, began by recruiting a congregational task force to initiate and lead inter-religious engagement in three areas: “sharing spiritual life, sharing the life of the mind, and sharing practical life and service to the world.” Early in the project they began planning with local Muslim leaders to craft a joint purpose statement: “to know, understand, and love our neighbors of other faiths in a safe space, and to enable people of all faiths to work together to serve the community and to grow long-term relationships.” The culmination of months of meeting, strategizing, and publicizing was a dinner and discussion event on May 12, 2017 (attended by approximately 25 Lutherans and 25 Muslims), and a commitment to sustain these new relationships via future events.23 Mayhew reports that subsequently local leaders have formed the Muslim-Christian Alliance of Bolingbrook.24 All this local collaboration with Muslims has enabled LSTC and Chicago-area congregations to witness in word and deed, has strengthened both mutual understanding and personal faith commitments, and has multiplied the ways Lutheran Christians can serve the world.

[23] Finally, at the denominational level, striving to fulfill a mandate from the ELCA’s 1991 ecumenical policy statement, A Declaration of Ecumenical Commitment,1 an appointed task force has now completed the initial draft of A Declaration of Our Inter-Religious Commitment: A Policy Statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The intent is to receive feedback from around the ELCA and present a final draft for consideration by the ELCA Church Council and Conference of Bishops and potential adoption by the Churchwide Assembly in 2019. The December 2017 draft includes this summary of “Our Calling”: “As the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we claim inter-religious engagement as part of our vocation. We — the individual members and participants, congregations, and the whole church — are called by God and freed in Christ to love and serve our neighbors in a multi-religious world.” More specifically, the draft includes loving, serving, living in solidarity with, and witnessing to our neighbor.

[24] Part II of the Declaration elaborates on the biblical and Lutheran theological traditions informing the vision and commitments outlined in Part I. The section, “What Lutheran Convictions Influence Our Calling?” includes an important subsection, “Ministries of Reconciliation.” Inspired and guided by Paul’s words on reconciliation in the second letter to the church at Corinth, the paragraph concludes:

When we seek to restore right relations – among humans, all of creation, and with God – we are serving as “ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The disciple who is invited to follow Christ is invited to be a reconciler—a reconciler who works for unity, justice, and peace.26

[25] All three of these new initiatives contribute to the potential for the church to be “ever-serving, ever-reforming, ever-reconciling.” Martin Buber’s credo, “All real living is meeting,” refers to the I-Thou relationships among human beings, between a human being and God, and even between humans and other parts of the natural world. The statement “All real living is meeting” is also sometimes translated “All real life is encounter.” Through opportunities for inter-religious encounter provided by ELCA congregations, colleges, and seminaries, Lutheran Christians can carry out the ministries of reconciliation. In the words of the 2017 inter-religious commitment draft: “we anticipate that in loving, serving, standing in solidarity with, and witnessing to our neighbors, we will encounter God, participate in building a more just and peaceful world, and find our faith enriched.”


1 James K. Honig, “Today, I Stand with My Muslim Neighbors,” blog on December 7, 2015, (accessed 12/4/2017).

2 Joseph Stump, “An Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism” (1935), posted by the Project Wittenberg (accessed 12/4/2017).

3 For specific examples, see the ELCA Advocacy blog (accessed 12/1/2017).

4 “Principles of Cooperation,” The National Interreligious Initiative For Peace In The Middle East, (accessed 10/9/ 2017).

5 Press Release, November 19, 2016 (accessed 12/1/2017).

6 Learn more at (accessed 12/4/2017).

7 Faith Action Network (accessed 12/4/2017).

8 For numerous such case studies, see Engaging Others, Knowing Ourselves: A Lutheran Calling in a Multi-Religious World, Eds. Carol Schersten LaHurd, Darrell Jodock, and Kathryn Mary Lohre (Lutheran University Press, 2016).

9 The conference was planned for January 2018:”Faith Over Fear,” (accessed December 11, 2017).

10 Personal communication, December 8, 2017.

11 (accessed 12/4/2017).

12 Engaging Others, Knowing Ourselves, 36-40.

13 Personal communication, December 7, 2017.

14 Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, (accessed 12/11/2017).

15 Retold by former ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark W. Hanson in Mark Hanson, Eboo Patel, Katie Baxter, “Negotiating Legitimate and Conflicting Values,” Intersections 44 (Fall 2016) 42-49. Available at (accessed December 11, 2017).

16 Interfaith Relations and the Churches: A Policy Statement of the NCC USA, (accessed December 11, 2017).

17 Meeting of the ELCA Inter-religious Task Force in Chicago, November 29-December 1, 2016.

18 Rebecca Cardone, “Interfaith in an Environment of Lutheran Tradition,” in Engaging Others, Knowing Ourselves, 164-167.

19 Public Church, (accessed on December 11, 2017).

20Learn more at (accessed on December 11, 2017).

21 Personal communication, December 8, 2017.

22 Personal communication, December 7, 2017.

23 Evan Mayhew, “Internship Project Report”, September 22, 2017.

24 Personal communication, December 11, 2017.

25 A Declaration of Ecumenical Commitment: A Policy Statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (accessed December 11, 2017).

26 Draft completed on November 27, 2017, and sent for copy-editing and distribution for feedback.

Carol Schersten LaHurd

Carol Schersten LaHurd is Distinguished Affiliate Professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and educational outreach consultant for its Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice.

Sara Trumm

Sara Trumm is Program Coordinator for A Center of Christian-Muslim Relations for Peace and Justice.