American Civic Life

Episcopal Church Community Builds Interfaith Relationships in Challenging Times

By Rev. Anne Marie Witchger
Group talking to each other. (SolStock/Getty Images)

Group talking to each other. (SolStock/Getty Images)

We’re living in a moment when bridge building has never been more critical, yet it feels harder than ever.  

Last fall, I reached out to several colleagues in my Christian faith tradition to ask how everyone was responding to the emerging war between Israel and Palestine.  

Everyone expressed deep heartbreak over the conflict, but no one knew what to do.  

One person said: “It feels like we’re at a dinner party where some guests have started arguing. Getting involved is not really our business, so we just must find a way to exit as quietly and graciously as possible.”  

At the time, I remember thinking, what?! If my friends started arguing at a dinner party, I would try to help. I wouldn’t just leave.  

But over the last several months, that’s precisely what many Christian communities have done.  

In my church, we have preached and prayed, but we haven’t stepped forward. We haven’t stayed in regular contact with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors or asked them directly how we can be with them through this time. We haven’t made any efforts to bring our communities together. And we haven’t attempted to talk about tough things. It has all felt too big and too painful.   

It turned out that despite lots of interfaith connections, our relationships weren’t that deep.   

We Can Build Bridges

This free, interactive online course shows bridgebuilding in action, defines the goals of bridgebuilding, and gives steps to build bridges in your own life. 

When I shared the We Can Build Bridges course with my church community last month, I realized that this could be an opportunity for us to begin exploring what it means to be people of good faith and good intentions and to respond thoughtfully and courageously to the current moment.   

[This is] an opportunity for us to begin exploring what it means to be people of good faith and good intentions and to respond thoughtfully and courageously to the current moment.   

The response was both positive and hopeful. Many of us have felt the divisions facing our world are too big or complicated. Is there anything we can do? However, as we began to discuss the course, we realized there are many ways we already engage in bridgebuilding behaviors and activities with our neighbors, family members, and new people we meet.   

One participant told a story about a Muslim coworker who asked how he could be both gay and Christian. Instead of shirking the question or offering a simple response, the participant said, “I’d love to tell you about that. Could we do it over lunch?” The lunch turned out to be the beginning of a charming relationship.   

Another participant talked about religious diversity within her family and the joys and challenges of keeping everyone together at the same table.  

Participants talked about helping their students process events in the world when other educators refused to engage. Some people talked about building relationships across differences that they never thought would have been possible because of how they were raised or what they were taught about other groups.   

People shared stories about embracing curiosity, deepening relationships, and choosing compassion and kindness in challenging situations.   

If we can do this personally, we must do it at an institutional or community level.     

I’m looking forward to opportunities to build bridges together. I hope we can repair lost or strained relationships during this time and create bonds that will last as we all navigate an uncertain future.   

Anne Marie Witchger 

The Rev. Anne Marie Witchger is priest in-charge at St. Marks Church-in-the Bowery, an historic and vibrant Episcopal Church in New York City. She is an Interfaith America Emerging Leader and an Interfaith Innovation Fellow