Engaging Other Religious Student Organizations

Engaging Other Religious Student Organizations

We have been asked about how chapters can engage in interfaith and inter-Christian events and dialogue, and in honor of Orthodox Awareness Month and #TakeTheChallenge, we’d like to offer some suggestions.

Disclaimer: These cannot and should not serve as the only point of reference in planning events with other religious organizations. First and foremost, you should consult with your chapter’s Spiritual Advisor for guidance and discernment. Additionally, you can reference the document published by the Assembly of Bishops, Guidelines for Orthodox Christians in Ecumenical Relations

Fellowship

Fellowship events are a great way to get to know another religious group on campus. Hospitality is a great way to show love, and learning about other people is a great way to start a relationship! Here are a few tips!

If you are hosting:

  • Choose a “neutral” location like a coffee shop, a bowling alley, or an on-campus hangout.
  • If possible, show hospitality by providing food or a fun activity that your guests don’t have to pay for.
  • Listen more than you talk! Try to get to know the people you are hosting without letting your assumptions or preconceptions get in the way.
  • Remember you are trying to make friends not converts. Don’t tell another group you’d like to have dinner when you really intend to give them an exposition of why Orthodox Christianity is the one, true faith. While, of course, you’ll probably talk religion if you invite another religious group out to dinner, steer clear of debates, disparaging comments, and triumphalism.

If you are invited by another group:

  • Accept the invitation! Why not spend some time getting to know other people?
  • Rally a good showing. Do your best to have all or at least most of your group attend if you have all been invited.
  • Remember you are trying to make friends, not converts….see above. Be nice.

Service

Service projects are also a great way to work with other religious groups on campus, especially other Christian groups. We all share a common goal to serve others with love and to give without receiving in return. Here are a few pointers:

If you are hosting:

  • Invite the input of other leaders to figure out the best way to join forces on projects.
  • If possible, work through and with existing professional organizations (soup kitchens, nursing homes, shelters, etc.). These organizations and institutions know the best practices for their particular areas of service and can guide you in carrying out your work with compassion and love.
  • Invite your Spiritual Advisor or someone from the organization to debrief with your group at the end. It’s good to integrate your experiences into your everyday life, especially if you are working in an unfamiliar context.

If you are invited by another group:

  • Make sure that the service project doesn’t have any strings attached. Avoid situations where the services offered come with proselytizing.
  • Look into any organizations or institutions with which you are unfamiliar, and involve your Spiritual Advisor in the decision-making process.
  • Remember service is not about gaining recognition for your group. Again, avoid using service opportunities as a platform for debate.

Education

Taking time to learn about other faith groups and share the beauty of Orthodoxy can be a really exciting and fulfilling experience if done properly. The means for learning and sharing traditions can run the gamut, so here are a few ways to engage in dialogue productively and lovingly.

If you are hosting:

  • Remember that “come and see” is much more effective than “sit and listen to my lecture.” Think of ways to allow people to experience first-hand the spiritual beauty of Orthodoxy. For example, lead a tour of the local parish pointing out the various stories told in the icons, host Breaking Bread so that you can teach people about the Eucharist, or put on a chanting concert open to the public.
  • Find common ground as a starting place for discussion. Talk about the lives of the saints with Catholics, the centrality of the Scriptures with Protestants, the sacredness of God’s commandments with Jews, the need for self-denial with Buddhists…you get the idea. This means you’ll actually have to learn about your guests and their traditions if you want to have a meaningful discussion.
  • If you are setting up a discussion or a formal debate, make sure that there are ground rules set beforehand–first within your own chapter and then with the other group(s) participating–about speaking respectfully, what subjects/language is off-limits, how to make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard, etc. And then, follow the rules and guidelines you set up with the utmost care.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” If a question is raised to which you don’t know the answer, say so, and do your best to follow up. It’s much better to go and find out than to make something up or give a half-baked answer to save face.
  • Strive to love and understand, not to win or prove someone wrong. How you say or do something is just as important as what you say. Speak the truth in love, not with judgement, condemnation, or haughtiness. Remaining calm and speaking with love will provide a stronger witness of Christ’s grace working in you than reciting the canons of the Ecumenical Councils vociferously (I think St. Paul agrees).

If you are invited:

  • Accept invitations that allow simply for a better understanding of another faith group such as tours, concerts, and cultural fairs.
  • If you are invited to participate in a discussion, debate, or panel, make sure you know all the details: What is the end goal? Who else is invited? Who is funding or backing the forum? Will it be open to the public? Who is the moderator? What are the topics? Any of these things could be deciding factors as to whether or not you should participate. You’re going to need your Spiritual Advisor’s involvement on this one for sure.
  • Remember that if you choose to participate in a debate where you are the only Orthodox Christian, both your words and actions will, whether you like it or not, reflect on the Church and Christ. Tread carefully in these situations, and try to avoid putting yourself in a position where you do not feel prepared to speak on a particular topic.

Worship

Worship is the trickiest category when working with other religious groups. You should always involve your Spiritual Advisor when it comes to making decisions about inter-Christian or interfaith prayer and worship. This is when that guide from the Assembly of Bishops really comes in handy, too.

If you are hosting:

  • You can always invite people to visit Orthodox worship services. I suggest Vespers or Paraklesis as a good starting place if people are interested. If you host a Day of Light, you get a built in opportunity to pray for others and invite them to visit an Orthodox service.
  • Be prepared with books or printouts for people to follow the service, and make sure that you are available to guide people along if they look lost.
  • Make time to discuss the services before or after so that people have an opportunity to ask questions.
  • If you bring groups to Liturgy, respectfully let them know beforehand that only baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians may receive Holy Communion.

If you are invited:

  • Generally speaking, Orthodox Christians can participate in non-liturgical prayer with other Christians and can observe the worship of others without participating, but get the blessing of your Spiritual Advisor to go.
  • Be kind and curious. Ask questions respectfully and do not use another’s hospitality as an opportunity to insult them.
  • If you feel uncomfortable, leave. And along the same lines, if someone in your group doesn’t feel comfortable attending at all, don’t pressure or force them to go.
  • Avoid participating in any sacramental or spiritual rituals including, but not limited to, receiving communion in a non-Orthodox church, altar calls, offerings to idols, or meditation.

Above all, seek the guidance of your Spiritual Advisor, be faithful to the Jesus Christ and His Church, and do your best to love others by giving them your respect and attention.