The Common Good

What a Neighborhood Elder Taught Me About Interfaith Prayer

A story I have written about before and preached on time and time again recently took on new meaning for me. Every Saturday for years, the Sojourners Neighborhood Center would hand out a bag of groceries to nearly three hundred families in need -- about 20 blocks from the White House. Just before the doors were opened and the people came in, all those who helped prepare the food and get it together would join hands and say a prayer. The prayer was often offered by Mary Glover. She was our best pray-er, a sixty-year-old African-American woman who knew what it meant to be poor and knew how to pray. She prayed like someone who knew to whom she was talking. She had been carrying on a conversation with her Lord for many, many years. She first thanked God for another day in which "The walls of my room were not the walls of my grave; and my bed was not my coolin' board, and for another day to serve you, Lord." I'll never forget the next words she always prayed: "Lord, we know that you'll be coming through this line today, so help us to treat you well."

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The other week I was honored to travel to the University of Wisconsin- Madison to serve as the Rose Thering Fellow for the Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions. I told the story of Mary Glover's prayer not to focus on the commentary it provides on the 25th chapter of Matthew, but for what it can teach us about working with those of other faiths. For some, interfaith work and worship means the minimization of differences until all of our religious traditions become barely indistinguishable from one another -- a kind of common denominator inter-religious politeness with little appeal for anyone. Prayer at an interfaith service is pared down to saying only those things upon which every one in the room can agree. It often makes for a service that's boring instead of exciting, and for words more mushy than inspiring.

Mary Glover prayed week after week at our community center in the presence of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and those who held no faith at all. Never once did I see anyone hesitate or feel insulted by this prayer with its unapologetic appeal to Jesus as her Lord. It was able to bridge gaps between those of different faiths not because it obscured differences, but because it clarified a compelling vision. It reached out because of the depth of its sincerity, not because of a carefully worded attempt to be doctrinally non-offensive.

In our inter-connected world, faith is either a source of conflict or a means for cooperation. We need to choose whether we will be agents of violence or of peace. Being an agent of cooperation and peace does not require you to give up your faith or the unique truth claims about your religious tradition. I learned from Mary Glover's wisdom on the application of Matthew 25 and now I look to her as a woman who dug deeper into her own tradition to reach out farther to the traditions of others.

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