Interfaith Engagement as Loving-Kindness and Discipleship: Community Formation of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church

By Rev. Greg Klimovitz

How can a congregation embody solidarity and non-anxious presence in the midst of increased cultural polarity and fear? For the faithful of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church (GPC), their answer has resided in a commitment to local interfaith engagement. A congregation whose membership hovers around 100, this Lower Merion church recently enhanced explorations of the diverse religious traditions in their community so to love their neighbor as themselves. “The spirit of understanding other traditions is part of the DNA of GPC,” remarked Rev. Todd Stavrakos, pastor of GPC since 2006, “By our intentional study of different traditions we are beginning to realize God is calling us to work in different ways and to run counter to how society seems to be more and more stratified- what many of us talk about as people living in silos.”

As the saints of Gladwyne have refused to silo their witness, they have strengthened collaborations with the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Philadelphia and developed significant relationships with local religious communities. These connections have led to a series of interfaith engagements where they not only host conversations with the likes of Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams, but also are welcomed into the sacred spaces of their neighbors at Hindu temples or Buddhist and Baha’i centers. Along the way, Rev. Margaret Somerville, associate pastor at Gladwyne, has asked the congregation, “Can we be bold enough to step outside of our space of wanting to welcome and invite and go out and engage and be in the space and share worship and practices with people of other traditions?” The affirmative response has led GPC disciples, including youth in confirmation, to learn alongside and share with their interfaith siblings and see the image of God reflected in those so often misunderstood and characterized. Participants in Advent and Lenten series have even pushed through initial apprehensions and enriched their love for their Christian faith and contemplative practices. “I think some people who begin to get involved in interfaith engagement as Christians are scared at first that they are not supposed to talk about Jesus. That has proven to be absolutely the opposite,” added Rev. Somerville. “People from other traditions are open as we are trying to be [open]. They want to hear about why we are following the way of Jesus Christ and who Jesus is as our Lord and Savior…They want to hear about why that is the truth for us. That’s a beautiful thing.”

In addition to the impact of interfaith engagement on GPC discipleship, beauty has been found in the mutual trust established with local religious communities that enhanced how GPC responds to tragedy and local concerns. This was evident after last year’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Two days before the tragedy, GPC engaged in a series of contemplative practices facilitated by Harold Messinger, Cantor of Beth Am Israel. Over the course of twenty minutes, they meditated and chanted the Hebrew word, chesed, or “loving-kindness.” This discipline and the presence of Messinger left such an imprint on participants that, when news broke about Tree of Life, they responded with the same loving-kindness towards their neighbor and headed to Beth Am Israel to sing and pray with their Jewish siblings. “If anybody asks me what I want to see as an outcome of our interfaith work, that is what I want to see. That we can be in solidarity with others in their times of need and their moments of need,” said Rev. Stavrakos. “And I know that they will be there in our moments of need as well. And that’s really what this is about.”

This embodiment of loving-kindness did not end there. Recently, GPC applied for and received a Great Ends Grant through the Presbytery for a summer initiative, Lower Merion Summer Café, which pulled together collective resources of the interfaith community as response to the pervasive food insecurity that plagues Lower Merion. Aware that over 900 children are on subsidized lunch programs, this venture provided daily food and nutrition to these families during the summer gap in assistance programs. This combined effort underscored that, while there may be differences among them, the interfaith community holds common beliefs that no child should be left hungry and the alleviation of local inequities requires combined efforts of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith centers. As Rev. Stavrakos added, “If the church is serious about actually addressing the needs of God’s children in our communities, the best avenue to do it is through interfaith work.”

As our congregations gathered and scattered throughout Greater Philadelphia continue to discern how God is calling them to love their neighbor as themselves, the witness of Gladwyne is an invitation to consider revitalized interfaith engagement. This work will not only enhance the discipleship and Christian formation of a congregation, but also become a renewed avenue for local collaborations as a church lives into the mission of God. As Rev. Stavrakos reminds us, “We cannot proclaim the gospel if we are remaining in silos. We have to be out and about and engaging.” Thanks be to God for how the faithful of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church have indeed been out and about, linking arms in solidarity with their interfaith neighbors.

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