Two women with headscarves at Barnes and Noble, 2000

Two women with headscarves at Barnes and Noble, 2000

Religion, Other and Otherwise

In 2000 I had an argument via letter with Pastor Tom Harrison of Asbury United Methodist Church, in Tulsa, OK.  I had been thinking and reading about other religions, and realized that one of the big shortcomings of the church was that they were trying to talk to (and yes, convert) people they didn’t understand or know.  
The church was then promoting something they called ‘friendship evangelism’ which meant getting to know the person, befriending them, before attempting to explain what you believe and how or why they might want to consider it themselves.  We talked about this in our small group and I put forth the question, what if your neighbor you are trying to befriend is a Buddhist, or a Muslim?  Do you get to know what they believe, and understand it, find it’s value, it’s reasons as well as find out what sort of sports their kids like and what sort of novels they read?  
There was some discussion about that,  some saying yes, some saying no.  It was obvious to me that it was important to treat any friend’s religion with respect, not dismissing it by thinking it’s so unimportant that you don’t have to know the basics of it. 
Beyond that we were now living in a very interconnected world.  Often, in business, some of the congregation were having to travel all over the world, or have to negotiate and do business from home with people of very different cultures and beliefs.
I suggested to my small group leadership that I would like to do a series on other religions.  They said maybe I could do a one day presentation, that would probably suffice.  I declined the offer since I knew I couldn’t do any of the religions justice in the 10 minutes or so I could dedicate to them in a 1 hour stretch.
I sent a letter to Pastor Harrison with the idea that maybe he could do a series on other religions from the pulpit. Not in detail, but just in general overview, to help people see that the leader of their church was open and willing to understand other groups, religions, cultures, etc.  I thought it was needed because I had heard a lot of very ignorant and judgmental opinions put forth in the discussions I had had.  I thought he needed to take the lead and guide others to be educated and open, not ignorant and reactionary.
He responded angrily saying it was not his place to talk about other religions, that enough of our culture was talking about them, that he was there to talk about our own religion. That for him to bring up other religions in that way would be tantamount to giving them all equal weight.  He told me he worried about my soul and where I might go if I continued to think the way I was thinking.
To say I was stunned was an understatement.  While I can certainly understand a Pastor politely declining a sermon series idea for all sort of reasons, I did expect him to be considerate and thoughtful about the idea.  Instead he was angry, defensive and abused his power by putting out a spiritual threat.
Due to this and a few other reasons, I decided to leave Asbury and go to another church.  Not many months later September 11th happened.  The idea of understanding what others believe and why all of a sudden didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Drawing and story © 2016 Marty Coleman | 

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