As Mandy France began her pastoral internship at Grace Lutheran Church in Dawson, Minn., during the 2016 presidential campaign, she became concerned about negative comments she was hearing in the community about Muslims and Islam. So, the following year, she invited Ayaz Virji, a local medical doctor, to share his story with the community.

France and Virji started a series of workshops called “Love Thy Neighbor,” and France found that the opportunity to come together helped create open dialogue among the community.

“People were asking questions that they weren’t asking before. There was safe space created in the community to ask those hard questions. And in turn, growth and learning happened,” she said. “We need to create more safe space for people to ask questions without feeling judged.”

The workshops are a tangible representation of the ELCA’s interreligious commitments, one of many examples of how Lutheran faith and vocation play out in a multireligious world.

The ELCA has engaged in interreligious relations since its formation in 1988, building on the work of its predecessor bodies and the Lutheran World Federation and the witness of the ELCA’s ecumenical partners.

The 1991 Churchwide Assembly adopted “A Declaration of Ecumenical Intent,” which tasked the ELCA with creating an official statement to reflect the “distinct responsibility for the church to enter into conversations and reach deeper understanding with people of other faiths.” From that challenge evolved “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community” (1994), which repudiated Marin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. The 2019 Churchwide Assembly adopted “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment,” and in 2022 the ELCA Church Council adopted “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Muslim Community.”

“We need to create more safe space for people to ask questions without feeling judged.”

“Through three declarations—to the Jewish community, to the Muslim community and of interreligious commitment—the ELCA affirmed our commitments to our neighbors of other religions and worldviews,” said Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA presiding bishop.

“A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment” underscores the calling for Lutherans to love and serve the neighbor, working toward the common good of justice and peace for all people. “Religious diversity, when accompanied by mutual understanding and cooperation, enriches the whole,” it states.

“Our church has a reputation as a bridge-building church because of our formal interreligious declarations and statements—but even more so because of the care we invest in their implementation,” said Kathryn Lohre, executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations. “Our resources equip us to live out our faith in our local congregations and communities, and through our daily vocations. They also help our partners know what to expect of us and how to hold us accountable.”

Recognizing the challenges of ministry in multireligious communities, the ELCA developed “ELCA Guidelines for Ministry in a Multi-Religious World” in 2021. The resource provides pastoral assistance for leaders in the planning of interreligious prayer services, responses to tragedy, social ministry work with partners, and pastoral care for interreligious couples and families. An accompanying resource, “Preaching and Teaching With Love and Respect for the Jewish People,” was developed this year.

The new resources “help us to reflect on our theological grounding while considering the practical steps to take in our preaching, teaching, planning and partnership,” Eaton said. “I commend them to the whole church, and especially to our rostered ministers.”

Deepening our own faith

Members and leaders across the church have found that being in relationship with people from different faith backgrounds often leads to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of one’s own beliefs.

“Listening to [the] faith stories of others can cause me to question areas of my faith, and doing that work eventually reshapes my faith and deepens it,” said Mari Larson, a pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Las Vegas, and president of the Lutheran Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations Network (LEIRN). The network serves as a model for ecumenical and interreligious engagement throughout the ELCA, with representatives appointed by synod bishops.

Larson said her congregation has experienced opportunities for interreligious relations evolving from worship and from Bible and book study discussions. “In what began as a journey to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation, we have expanded our conversations to talk about all kinds of isms and phobias and how much we learn from those who are not exactly the same as we are,” she said.

“Relationships with people of other faith backgrounds have enriched and deepened my own faith experience.”

Nathan Allen, a pastor of Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Grand Blanc, Mich., and the LEIRN representative for the Southeast Michigan Synod, said, “[By] honoring the unique faith of our neighbors, we will also honor and appreciate our own faith in Jesus Christ.

“There is great benefit in helping explain our unique Lutheran voice [in a way] that doesn’t compromise who we are and our faith in Jesus while also allowing us to go out and be better witnesses of that faith in a community.”

France agreed: “Relationships with people of other faith backgrounds have enriched and deepened my own faith experience.

“Learning about how others understand and experience the divine brings me to a fuller understanding of who God is. I find myself asking larger questions and finding deeper answers.”

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Candice Hill Buchbinder
Candice Hill Buchbinder is the ELCA public relations manager.

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