An Interfaith Conversion: Guest Post from Rev. Elizabeth Hagan
Friends: I’m thrilled to welcome Rev. Elizabeth Hagan to the blog today! Elizabeth and I graduated from Duke Divinity School together in 2006. An ordained Baptist minister, Elizabeth’s commitment to the Gospel while being open to the many ways in which others approach God is an inspiration. Enjoy!
The first time I heard the phrase “God is too big for any one religion” I was in seminary in North Carolina.This statement was found on a bumper sticker on my roommate’s car. I looked at it every morning when I walked out of the house to go to school. I was intrigued, but confused.
Growing up with a “Jesus is the only way to God” upbringing, I had no idea about what to think of my Baptist soon-to-be clergy friend’s bold declaration on her car.
Was she crazy being so public about her inclusive theology in the Bible Belt? I worried about her safety on the road.
Several years later I found myself pastoring full-time in the Washington DC area—the land of much cultural and ideological diversity. In my free time, I dated Kevin, also a Baptist, who lived in a shared house in the city with two other guys. I liked them a lot. They were funny, smart and accepting of my growing presence in their home. They just so happened to be Hindu and Baha’i.
Everything I’d learned about my faith growing up (and in seminary too) taught me to think that conversion on their behalf was something I should add to my prayer list.
Yet, as I got to know them, I just couldn’t. I began to admire the discipline of their religious practices—their prayers, their meeting groups, and their sacred ceremonies. I came to know them as kind and moral individuals with much to teach me about God from their own spiritual journeys. I also found that they loved talking about the Bible and Jesus with them (as they knew much more about Christianity than many of my Christians friends did). One of them even helped to serve communion at my wedding to Kevin several years later.
As I settled into married life, I feared what my church would say if they knew I wouldn’t be willing to evangelize our friends. Would I be fired? Looking back now, I am ashamed now that I kept quiet.
I was happy two years later to land as the pastor of another congregation where I knew I could be fully myself, loving (not converting) my friends from other faiths.
Here, with the support of the leadership of my new church, my theology of inclusion continued to grow. I read new books. I made friends with colleagues outside of my own tradition. I even went to Israel on a Pilgrimage with an Imam, a Rabbi and an evangelical pastor for shared learning and service.
Most of all, I came to believe that Jesus is the only way to God for me, but might not be the case for someone else.
I was well on my way to living into my interfaith soul. But there’s always learning to do. Always.
Two summers ago, I signed up for continuing education course in the practice of spiritual direction. While there were countless spiritual direction programs I could have learned much from in my own Christian tradition (much closer to home too), something stuck out to me about Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley. I knew I could be uncomfortable, stretched theologically and come to moments of complete disagreement with my classmates. What might the Spirit be leading me into next?
Though life circumstances didn’t permit me to finish the program in the year as I’d hoped, I gained so much from just the one week of training.
I realized that my own spiritual practices lacked discipline. Spiritual disciplines are truly the path to God, no matter the labels we put on them.
I realized that I’d been so busy being a professional Christian that I forgot that God loved me no matter what I did or didn’t do.
I felt the Holy as we worshiped in the liturgy of my Jewish classmates, Native American classmates and simply spiritual folks who loved the trees. I need not be so quick to judge. God was indeed bigger than I thought.
Today, as I divide my time between two geographic and political extremes: Washington DC and Oklahoma City, OK, I’m continuing to learn what it means to be an Interfaith kind of Christian. To say that the word “interfaith,” easily attract or repel new friends and acquaintances. But I say it because we all must keep talking to each other. We must keep talking to each other without words like “You’re going to hell” or “My Bible says your Holy Book is wrong.”
Rev. Elizabeth Hagan is a pastor, a writer and international nomad. Previously, she served as the pastor of two churches in the Washington DC area before joining the team at Feed the Children, a non-profit committed to no child going to bed hungry. She currently serves as the Ambassador of Social Advocacy at Feed the Children: writing, traveling and assisting with the social media of the organization. She blogs regularly about her travels at “Preacher on the Plaza.”