Love your neighbor: Theology gets practical

April 1, 2013 

As people of faith, we are called to love our neighbors. Yet we human beings tend to gather with like-minded folks. We don’t know much about the folks who live among us who dress funny and insist on calling God by some foreign name. Do we have to love those people too? The key to loving our neighbors is creating opportunities to get to know them. We wanted to have a neighborhood get-together, not the type where we just exchange small talk and don’t really get to know each other, but something deeper.

A relationship that is afraid of offending may never risk the dialogue it takes to attain true friendship. Mt. Carmel Lutheran Church in San Luis Obispo sought to provide an environment of respect in which to ask rigorous questions and thereby begin to develop that deep love of our neighbor required of us as Christians.

Our community is home to people of many different faiths. With that in mind, Mt. Carmel began an Interfaith Discussion series, a public forum open to our community. Each Sunday for six weeks we met a neighbor we hadn’t known well before. In the course of those six weeks, Tony Criscuolo chatted about his Vedic tradition (Hinduism); Naiyerah Kolkailah, president of the Islamic Society of San Luis Obispo, shared her love of Islam; Sozan Peter Schellin told tales of Buddhism; Rabbi Linda Bertenthal from Congregation Beth David brought Judaism alive; while Dr. Debra Wilhelm of Nativity of Our Lady Catholic Church and Dr. Stephen Lloyd-Moffet spoke to different aspects of Christianity.

On the seventh week we met as a panel. This was our first time to all be in the same room at the same time answering the same questions. Unfortunately, because of significant family obligations, neither Dr. Wilhelm nor Rabbi Linda could participate in this wrap-up for the series conversation. So I stepped in to represent Christianity, and Dr. Lloyd-Moffet, professor of religious studies at Cal Poly not only served as moderator, but also occasionally offered a Jewish point of view.

“One hundred years ago such an assembly would have been exotic. However, today in San Luis, it’s just a gathering of neighbors,” he observed.

In the course of our conversation, the question of the “goal” of our faith tradition came up. We discovered that we share a similar vision: to live together with God in peace and be part of the healing work of God in the world today. If that is true, why does our world experience so much violence in the name of our various versions of the one God? Dr. Lloyd-Moffet called on an episode from “The Simpsons” to name the problem.

It seems the date for the end of the world has been announced and the different religious groups are all out with banners and posters saying; “Jesus is the Way” and “Allah is God” and “Jews are the Chosen People” … you get the idea.

According to the Simpsons, the problem is our competitive nature: neighbor against neighbor. Where is “Love thy neighbor” in that?

President Naiyerah Kolkailah closed our last neighborhood meeting with a clear vision of the path to community:

“If we maintain respectful interaction with each other and let people be, in a sense, then we can have a more peaceful relationship with each other, even if everyone just sticks to their own beliefs.”

Love thy neighbor doesn’t mean agree with one’s neighbors. It means love them.

Reverend Marjorie Funk-Pihl is pastor of Mt. Carmel Lutheran Church on Fredericks Street in San Luis Obispo, and is a member of the Ministerial Association of San Luis Obispo.

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