An Interfaith Adventure: Evangelicals, Alcohol, and a Very Strange Night

Every so often, someone comes up with an idea so bizarre, it must have merit.

I have written before about my belief in the importance of grass roots inter-communal dialogue – the sort of interactions that do not take place in formal settings, in which difficult questions can be asked, and even occasionally answered.

So when a member of a very small group of like-minded Jews suggested we attend a Christian evangelical service to see how a community effectively engages its congregation – particularly its youth – and to look at doing some ad hoc interfaith dialogue, there was some excitement.

To be fair, part of our enthusiasm stemmed from the strangeness of such a venture.

When we entered the church, two things struck us pretty quickly:

1) We were seriously overdressed, wearing shul-appropriate clothes amid a sea of blue jeans-clad Christians.

2) Everyone was nodding and smiling at us, the dark-haired, inappropriately attired strangers in their midst.

A female lay preacher approached us, beaming, with an outstretched hand. Introductions were made.

“Can you imagine such a greeting in a Jewish place?” one of us whispered afterwards.

We considered our people’s prickliness, and contrasted the skeptical, querulous Jewish realm with the joyous acceptance of Christ (and other people) that was manifesting in outstretched arms, closed eyes, and total unself-consciousness.

Were Jews constitutionally capable of such abandon? It didn’t seem likely. To me, it didn’t seem desirable either, but still, it was hard not to be in awe of the certainty all around us.

We Jews were busy admiring and focusing on the expertly calibrated service – songs, chats, sermons, prayers, more songs – but were jolted from our reverie when the pastor began talking about converting everyone between China and Jerusalem to Christianity.

We exchanged furtive glances.

Then the pastor admitted there might be some difficulty convincing folk like Afghans and Iranians that Christ was their saviour.

A wave of hysteria swept over me, and I gulped it down and coughed it away.

There’s no laughing in other people’s shuls.

We Jews were all feeling the same thing: trying to convert the entire non-Christian Eurasian area was a step too far.

Until then, we’d been feeling that we had some common ground with our hosts, but there is something about Christian proselytising that gives your average Jew indigestion.

In retrospect, we were being quite silly. We knew we were going to an evangelical church and that their sole interest was in saving souls.

Perhaps what jolted us so was the geographic region the pastor was discussing. I think we all felt a strange bond with this non-Christian world that so angrily abuts our own non-Christian homeland.

Had the pastor been discussing the conversion of an obscure tribe in Latin America, I doubt we would have been quite so affected.  Even ad-hoc interfaith adventurers can be parochial.

Our misgivings increased when all congregants were invited to the front of the church, ordered into pairs, and told to pray over each other. We stood politely, heads bowed with only one of us muttering hamotzi out of panic, and perhaps immaturity.

Our fortitude was rewarded at the end of the service. Congregants crowded around us obvious strangers, and two people in particular took to us.

They were a young, smiling couple, who picked that we were Jews immediately. The man told us his father was involved in “outreach” programmes with Jews.

For the benefit of this blog’s non-Jewish readers, even secular Jews often have a visceral reaction against Jews for Jesus. We find it difficult to dissociate attempts at converting us with attempts at wiping us out when we decline the invitation.

We made it clear to the pair that we were attending only to learn from their approaches to youth and community and to engage in a bit of inter-faith dialogue.

That this did not phase them at all, and that they responded by inviting us out for drinks, was testimony either to their good nature or their conviction that anyone was a candidate for conversion.

But if the latter were their motivation, they concealed it well, because over beer and vodka, they peppered us with cultural and religious questions, while comparing the differences and similarities between our faiths.

There was nothing strident in anything they said, though their certainty in Christianity was clear. They asked us no questions that would indicate they were gathering information for use in future “outreach” activities.

They just seemed genuinely interested – and often bemused – by Judaism’s multi-layered legal framework.

Meanwhile, we were fascinated by the absence of structure that characterised their approach to religion. One keen-eyed Jew remarked later that no one was wearing a crucifix – that no religious symbology seemed present anywhere in the church at all. I wondered if this was a reaction against the ossified institutional churches – that the whole rejection of anything that was not a direct relationship with Christ and spreading his word – was a rebellion against the failed legitimacy of more established denominations.

It was through this lens that perhaps our new friends could not understand why we Jews would allow ourselves to be so dominated by tradition – to the extent that we would risk alienating our young people.

Indeed, it focused our minds on the conundrum as well.

They, on the other hand, were less troubled by our questions of how they managed to build a religious movement around an absence of structure.

At the end of the evening, we exchanged phone numbers and thanked each other.

In the car on the way home, there was a slightly frenzied air. It was as though we’d been holding our breath all evening, and could finally exhale: talk openly and Jewishly and profusely.

Our discomfort at some of what we had seen was perhaps amplified by the knowledge that these people had certain significant advantages in attracting young people and building a community. They were not weighed down by history, ritual, or law.

Still, we could learn from their refusal to hide their devotion and enthusiasm, and, perhaps more importantly, we could learn how important and useful welcoming strangers can be.

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13 Responses to “An Interfaith Adventure: Evangelicals, Alcohol, and a Very Strange Night”

  1. Phill O'Semetic says:

    Don’t worry S.J, “orthodox” Christians would probably feel only marginally less uncomfortable attending a “Happy Clapper” service?
    The rituals and liturgy of traditional religion comfort the old but perhaps alienate the young. Good on you for getting out there to see for yourself. I personally would be interested to attend Jewish worship, is that allowed?

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  2. Sisu says:

    Yep, Phill’s right….many raised in a more traditional Christian faith would be squirming in their seats. I was raised Uniting Church (itself very relaxed as far as faiths go) but returning to the Church as an adult is an exercise in trying to spot traditional methods of worship… almost everything has been replaced by a younger, hipper vibe.

    Many of the Christian evangelicals, I would think, are present for the sense of belonging. Is this sense of belonging not present in Jewish youth? If so, it would fit in what I have observed in some of my Jewish students – a proud Jewish identity but a wariness towards belonging. They have Jewish friends of their age (late teens / early adult) but it seems not much connection to other Jewish community groups or institutions.

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  3. Wolfie says:

    As an adult i see a massive difference between the sense of connection young people tend to find at youth movements – the feeling of belonging to a group – and a sense of connection with the ritual and tradition at Shule.

    I learnt a lot abut yiddishkeit at youth movements – ‘benching’ was made into a fun game after lunch at a camp… some of the prayers for davening were translated for those of us whose Hebrew would not stand up to the task… songs for Shabbat were transliterated so we could all join in.

    So sure – the youth movements may have given me some of the tools to understand and utilise ritual (transliterating songs, explaining the rituals…) but the motivation for learning was more geared to ‘fitting in’ rather than a love of some of the rituals that developed later – privately – as an adult…

    The line that caught me in Sisu’s post was this:

    “They have Jewish friends of their age (late teens / early adult) but it seems not much connection to other Jewish community groups or institutions.”

    Yes, its all too often a sad kind of self-aware – yet incestuously trapped – celebration of insularity and xenaphobia amongst the 18-35’s demographic.

    They grew up knowing the rituals because their parents showed them the culture and religion… forcing them along to shule or a youth group. Even if the darling offspring weren’t educated in yiddishkeit, they felt a G-d-given sense of belonging because their mother’s blood entitled them ‘birth right’ of acceptance into the jewish community and a Jewish dayschool.

    Yet they are all too often – these same individuals are too scared to stand up and speak out about the ways in which their personal identities conflict with the forms of Jewish celebration they are being offered; too scared of offending somebody or treading on toes to explore and debate interpretations of the Halacha outside of the encapsulated safety of a small group of friends… and too comfortable in their cozy relationship with their social realm to bother trying to figuring out that a fabulous photo on the social pages of the AJN does not constitute proof of commitment to Judaism as a religion – but rather paints the Jewish community as a very exclusive social club based on bloodlines.

    Anyway its much easier to slap on makeup and a dress – or a pin on a kipah – and eat some bagel and egg dip once a month at a Jewish social function with a pack of mates, than brave a personal connection and relationship with G-d through a set of ancient rituals – that for many in the diaspora – are very hard to grasp.

    Tough words, I know, but based on my personal experience.

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  4. Wolfie says:

    Sensible Jew : re: attending other people’s shules/churches/places of worship -

    it really depends which group you were speaking to, as to whether they would attend a synagogue as part of an interfaith exchange. some would be willing to attend, others not.

    i’m sure they would be as fascinated as you were to have the chance to see how others worship.

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  5. Morry says:

    I loved how readable and witty this was, SJ, and could identify with so much. It reminded me of when I went to experience Midnight Christmas mass at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I found a huge crowd, with many knitted kipot scattered around … it seems I wasn’t the only one curious, and I started wondering just how many Chrisitans there really were in that crowd.

    I think part of what you describe may relate to the difference between the security of being part of the mainstream, as opposed to being a tiny group under threat of assimilation. I see much the same thing in the comfort and confidence generally exuded by the married in social environments. Singles seem to often be making too much of an effort … anyway, I think there’s a parallel there *grin*

    I had to ponder what Wolfie was saying, and wonder, why is that Jews feel the need to question so much? Do Christians put that much effort and energy into trying to change their rituals? I can’t remember ever hearing any Catholic friends demanding a different flavour wafer at Mass? I think only a Jew would build two Synagogues on a desert island so he would have one that he doesn’t go to.

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  6. Wolfie says:

    *grins at Morry’s comment re; 2 shules on a desert island*

    Nice analogy – on the upside, at least there would be 2 kiddushes to rush between on Shabbos morning, twice as much bagel and egg dip available, twice as many people to schmooze with if people were willing to have dialogue between those two shules…

    In regards to none of the Catholics you know demanding different flavored wafers:

    Perhaps the Catholics you hang out with are more at ease with their Catholicism than those featuring in the media as of late.

    i’d refer you back to the sacking of Brisbane priest Father Peter Kennedy
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/02/19/2496182.htm

    or more recently, the case of Father Bob Maguire, who has worked alongside John Safran on JJJ and SBS for a number of years now:

    http://www.theage.com.au/national/father-bob-drafts-refusal-to-resign-20090914-fmyz.html?autostart=1

    The Catholics that I include as friends in my own generation have many issues and questions around traditions (eg. in particular marriage, abstinence, condoms and sex before marriage…) and sadly have sometimes themselves walking away from the Church and their parent’s faith due to unresolved issues around tradition and ritual.

    as to why the Jews must ask so many questions:

    as my father used to say, we must question the present, so we don’t repeat the past…

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  7. Morry says:

    Wolfie, I love your thinking re Kiddush. A wonderfully devious mind that instantly finds the up side. I’ll certainly think of Kiddush next time I’m in two minds about anything.

    As for Catholics, you’re undoubtedly right, we all have issues *sigh* …. it’s the questions that are different in my experience. Tell anybody else to face East when they pray and they may ask “Where’s East?” The Jews in my circle will ask “Why not West?” “What’s wrong with North?” and “South’s easier to find” … and then there’s chopped herring with egg salad on bagel, as you say. Aaaahh well. Perhaps that represents balance in a somewhat crazy world.

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  8. Wolfie says:

    if delighting in diversity – or double the egg dip – indicates a devious mind – then i’ll happily accept that as a compliment…

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  9. eli says:

    isn’t it typical, you can’t have a discussion about Jews without mentioning food. LOL

    Off course there is the unspoken Kiddish rating system amongst shule goers. The first question during shabbes is not what did the Rabbi say , but what scotch was on offer at the kiddish. Aha! i know which shule i’ll be going to next week. so nu what did the rabbi have to say….who knows , i was shlufing during his Dvar Torah

    Shabbat shalom V Shana Tova SJ et al

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  10. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Phil. I’m pretty sure it’s allowed, but I can ask someone who has more knowledge than me. Also, synagogues vary widely. There are reform, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, ethnicly distinct… and they’d have differing levels of appreciation for outsiders. Heh.

    We also have happy clappers… but they’re nowhere near as happy as the Christians. :)

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  11. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Sisu!

    Belonging was a very important theme in this adventure. I’ve seen exactly what you describe regarding young Jews and their wariness about groups and institutions. That’s why we can always benefit from talking to people outside the community to get different ideas on how to reverse that trend.

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  12. sensiblejew says:

    Wolfie, thank you for your impassioned comment.

    And thank you for expressing a sentiment I hear so often privately, but is so rarely expressed in public.

    Your words may be tough, but they are also very, very important.

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  13. sensiblejew says:

    Ha, Morry! I love that joke about the desert island Jew.

    Thank you for your lovely comment.

    I agree with much of what you say, except that Christianity has so many sects and schisms – they are constantly reinventing themselves.

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