My dad grew up in a Jewish family. When he was a child, he was targeted with insults because of his family’s background. As a result, he was not fond of religion. He also wasn’t much of a talker, but my older brother Nathan was persistent and wanted to know what our dad thought about God, the universe, and everything. It was obvious that talking about these ultimate questions made my dad uncomfortable, but Nathan had guts. After being pushed and pushed, my dad would leave the room saying something noncommittal like, “I just don’t like talking about that stuff.”
A few years after marrying my dad, my mom became a Christian. Reconciling her newfound faith with my dad’s distaste for religion made for an awkward and tense household at times. My mom recalls a time when my dad found me in my bedroom, gazing at a picture of Jesus dying on the cross in a children’s Bible that she gave me. He was disturbed and angered by this. He wondered aloud, should a child really be looking at an illustration of a mostly naked man, bloody and in agony, being executed?
Sunday mornings were especially tense. The air was thick as we got ready to go to church as a family ... without Dad. Getting everyone out of the house on time was quite the production, and my dad kept his distance. But that was okay; engaging with him on a Sunday morning felt very strange, like we were not supposed to speak to him, or even look at him. When we returned from church, we knew it was best not to talk about it – so our Sunday experiences together in Church evaporated into the void of silence, and the cycle continued.
Dad’s beliefs, or lack thereof, was a recurring topic of conversation when he wasn’t around. His silence kept everybody guessing – and second guessing – and this included my mom. Every slight motion toward or away from God captivated us. One time, he agreed to accompany the rest of us to church to watch a Spring play called “New Creation” that Nathan helped direct. Nathan was so thrilled, that he grabbed a microphone before the last song and announced that the performance was dedicated to his dad, and that his greatest desire was to see his dad become a “new creation” through Jesus Christ.
I remember vividly the spaghetti dinner that came afterward in the fellowship hall. “You know he only did that because he loves you,” Mom said to Dad. Looking down at his plate, he mustered a slight nod as if to say, “I guess.” The tension was so unbearably high, we could hardly eat. Any time after that day that Nathan had access to a microphone, my mom would corner him and give him this warning: “Don’t you dare say anything about your dad.”
As a committed evangelical Christian, I’ve been asked a number of times what inspired my enthusiasm about religious diversity and interfaith work in the first place, and what keeps me coming back. For a while, I said it was because of my experience teaching world religions courses at a community college, where I’ve now been teaching for six years. However, I eventually began to wonder if a deeper stream of rationale was at play, something from my past that could explain why I’m more comfortable building friendships with people of different worldviews than some of my evangelical friends, and furthermore, why I’m more comfortable in spaces with worldview diversity than spaces where everyone believes the same things I do.
This is when memories of my childhood came into focus. It suddenly occurred to me that while many of my evangelical friends grew up in a “Christian home” with two committed Christian parents, I did not. This formed me in ways that I hadn’t recognized or appreciated before. Trying to live authentically as a Christian around my dad was awkward and difficult, but it prepared me for life in a pluralistic society. I’ve heard it said that if you want to find a place in your heart for someone of another religion, you need to try and see God in them. For me, I see my earthly father (and my love for him) in each person of another worldview that I meet.
Ironically, my dad, the man with whom I had a worldview clash, was dealing with one of his own. Though he let go of his Jewish identity at a young age, the rest of his family did not. He struggled to find meaning in their practices at times, but his love for them was unwavering, just like his love for us was unwavering. As it turns out, my dad prepared me for a pluralistic society in more ways than one. He taught me that differences in belief need not divide you from the ones you love, and that compassion is a powerful thing. His brothers and sisters still reminisce about his tendency to try and see the best in everyone.
My dad had a heart attack and passed away in 2013. A few years before he passed away, he started attending church with my Mom. When I started my own church after graduating from college, he would come and listen to me preach. A few months before he passed, I finally had the chance to have a meaningful conversation with him about faith. He was patient, listening carefully to every word I said. He didn’t have much to say, but it didn’t bother me. I like to think he knew how important it was for me to speak to him about God, even if it was still a bit awkward for him. Some might say that the conversation was pretty uneventful, but in my heart, worlds were colliding.
I’ve learned a lot from teaching world religions, earning a master’s degree in theology, and working on a national study of college student attitudes toward other worldview groups: the Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS). But there is an even deeper reason why I find religious diversity and interfaith work to be so profound. In a way, I was raised on it. Before it was my vocation, it was my life. My family. My house. It was my normal; something I took for granted. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, but my dad was a blessing from God. He helped me take my first steps as a student of other belief systems. I only hope that I can embody his wisdom and compassion in my own work.