Post Author: Shannon E. Sullivan
Today we begin a series of articles introducing our newest cohort of Writers in Residence. These young clergy women are gifted writers from a variety of backgrounds, denominations, and ministry settings, who will share their voices on Fidelia regularly over the next two years. We are so delighted to have the opportunity to share their work with you.
A young Christian woman and a young Muslim woman walk into a cafe…no, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. Interfaith jokes rarely include women – in fact even more serious images of interfaith relationships depict male priests, rabbis, imams, or monks gathering for a meal, a drink, or a football game. These images are often quite moving, serving as powerful reminders that God is at work through many religions and giving us glimpses of hope that we can get along. But such images are also not as accessible to me as a young clergywoman nor, I suspect, for the many people who see them as feel-good niceties that don’t have any real influence on how we understand God. I want to offer a new image for interfaith relationships from my own life, one anchored in the messiness of life and friendship and featuring young women:
It was one or two in the morning, so we were not in a cafe, but we’d had so much Bosnian coffee that day that we still couldn’t shut our eyes. We hadn’t seen each other in person for a few years so we had plenty to talk about: married life, new jobs, what it is like to be young women leaders in our communities. But, of course, we instead were talking about which Turkish soap opera actors are the cutest; at least, until Đana’s voice became serious: “Can I ask you something?” “Of course,” I responded, but I was still scrolling through overly dramatic stills of scenes from the soap operas we had been talking about. She asked, “What is this Trinity? God is one. How can God also be Jesus, a human?”
This was not the question I was expecting. As often as we spoke of God throughout the years of our friendship, I was wary of talking about theology and doctrine or even Jesus because I didn’t want to seem pushy, offend her, or hurt her. Đana is a Muslim who was targeted for genocide when she was a child by people claiming to share my faith in Christ. But now Đana was asking me (at a ridiculous time of day and while I was looking at pictures of Murat Yıldırım) to talk about my Christian faith. Her question challenged me to identify the difference such stories and doctrines made in my life, and why they matter.
I did not understand at first that she wasn’t really asking how this doctrine worked but why I believed it. So, at first I stumbled through the usual explanations I use in children’s church: the ice, water, and steam; the seeds, skin, and flesh of an apple; three roles of one person. She was skeptical. “Maybe you just need to read the Qur’an,” she laughed. I laughed too, telling her I was working on it. Then I shared with her my own need for the mystery I find at the heart of the Trinity. For me, Trinity is not a doctrine to understand, but a relationship to be marveled at and emulated. The awkwardness of my friend’s inquiry resolved into gratitude for the opportunity to articulate why the Trinity matters so deeply to me.
Images of interfaith relationships, even when featuring all-male clergy, remind us that “We’re all one team.” This was the message proclaimed in a 2018 Super Bowl ad for Toyota that featured both male clergy and a couple of nuns at the game together. Yes, we are one team, but this is not a message to make us feel good but one to push us to be better. These interfaith relationships should challenge our theology, inspire our life in faith, support each other in prayer, and keep us asking why what we believe matters.
I was ordained when I was twenty-eight, and employed by churches or as a chaplain since I was twenty. I value the groups of young clergywomen I engage with for support. Young clergywomen are the ones who know what it is like to agonize about everything from what clothes to wear with a collar to how to educate our parishioners about justice issues long ignored by previous leaders in the church.
As I value these relationships, I have found a calling to broaden my community ever wider and build relationships with young women leaders of other faiths. These women are often not ordained to ministry, so I don’t find them on panels with me or available when I call the local mosque. Đana is a preschool director and teacher, not a Qu’ranic scholar. Yet, her faith has given her great strength through loss and war, inspiring me to live out my faith in new ways. Her prayers comforted me when I lost pregnancies. Her home is open to me to remind me of the presence of God as I prepare to embark on a new chapter in my life this spring. We are not only on the same team, we are loving one another as the children of God we were created to be.
Our images of interfaith relationships should not be limited to those we see in commercials or even on panel discussions. We need images that show us these relationships can go deeper, challenging us not to get along but to create a more beautiful humanity. We need the stories of young women in their pajamas, with tiny coffee cups strewn about the room and Turkish soap operas on the television, as they explore together the meaning of the Trinity and find the presence of God.
Rev. Shannon E. Sullivan is a life-long feminist and United Methodist currently serving the community of Frederick, Maryland, as the associate pastor of Calvary. She is a proud graduate of Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. Her passions include writing, mission work, interfaith partnerships, multi-sensory worship, and helping the church get out of the building and into the community in new ways.
She is married to Aaron Harrington, her high school sweetheart, who is a pilot, aerospace engineer, and general aviation geek. They have no living children but have filled their home with cats, a boxer puppy, and chickens in addition to mountains of books and airplane parts. When they are able to, they travel and enjoy the beauty of God's creation from National Parks to ancient cathedrals and bustling marketplaces.
Image by: Shoot N’ Design
Used with permission