Drawing lines in interfaith dialogue

coexist bannerStories about interfaith issues are tricky these days, particularly when they involve conflict. Down in Austin, Texas, a Baptist church's rejection of an interfaith Thanksgiving service because of the involvement of Muslims has sparked an intense discussion of the holiday and how people and organizations of different faiths are supposed to interact with each other in today's society. It's crucial for reporters to convey the issues with the correct terms and definitions along with both sides of the argument. The problem is that, depending on who you talk to, those terms and definitions are different and it may not be entirely clear to anyone what exactly has happened. And then sometimes people don't talk to reporters or they send out intentionally vaguely worded statements. Reporters trying to get to the heart of an issue really don't like those.

Take for instance the lede to this Austin American-Statesman story:

Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, the city's largest interfaith organization, announced Thursday that its annual Thanksgiving celebration Sunday had to be moved because Hyde Park Baptist Church objected to non-Christians worshipping on its property.

The group learned Wednesday that the rental space at the church-owned Quarries property in North Austin was no longer available because Hyde Park leaders had discovered that non-Christians, Muslims in particular, would be practicing their faith there. The event, now in its 23rd year, invites Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Bahais and others to worship together.

I have no knowledge of this church or of Austin, for that matter, but last time I checked, Thanksgiving is a secular holiday with religious undertones and history.

With that in mind, I am left wondering precisely how this involves worship in the traditional understanding of the word. The rental space in question is a gymnasium, not a sanctuary.

While not specifying when the church started to object to the event, the story seems to point toward a postcard for the event that "promised space for Muslim Maghrib prayer." The statement from the church says that it welcomes "all faiths" to worship, but won't allow its property to be used for "non-Christian religions." This story is about prayer, then. If you take away the prayer element, is the church OK with this?

The statement from the church, urging tolerance for its religious beliefs that prompted the decision, seems to cloud some of the issues. It would have been helpful if the reporter had persuaded church members to expound what precise theological issues prompted them to reject this group after accepting them. Perhaps it is the case that the church only wanted to issue the statement and refused interviews?

Later on in the story is this interesting statement, which includes a term reporters should avoid at all costs:

Of Hyde Park's decision, he said it was "unfortunate that people still feel this way in this day and age."

Some Christians object to praying with people of other faith backgrounds or allowing those people to worship in their sanctuaries.

That horribly overused word "some" should really be avoided, especially when it is used as a catch-all summary of what a reporter thinks is the viewpoint of a group of people. This story isn't even about a sanctuary or the church praying with the group. It's about church property.

Would it be fair to mention that some Muslims in the area, or around the world, may feel the same way about their property or that traditionally churches consider their property, whether it was the sanctuary or the barn, as sacred? The most intriguing part of the saga comes when local synagogue leaders arrange for space for the event and everybody goes home happy and thankful.

The story gives plenty of room for those who believe interfaith issues are important and how sad and terrible it is that something like this could happen in this day and age, but is it really that difficult to find Christians, or even Muslims, who respect and understand the view that churches can do what they want with their property?

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