Triumph of Tolerance: Yale pastor at Trinity's Interfaith Prayer Service

The Reverend Ian Oliver, senior associate chaplain for Protestant life and pastor of the University Church in Yale, was among the religious leaders who spoke at the Jan. 17 Interfaith Service marking the bicentennial of the Trinity Church on the Green. He spoke on the theme of neighborliness. The text of Oliver’s talk follows:

Friends, neighbors, colleagues, Senator Blumenthal, Mayor Harp, honored guests, what a privilege to be invited here today to help inaugurate a year of celebration for our friends at Trinity Church on the Green. What an honor to gather with neighbors of many religions to pray, each in our own way, for the triumph of tolerance in our own time. Any gathering at which people come together, who could, by all rights, be divided, is a good and worthy gathering.

But I did wonder a little at the invitation to speak today —  after all — I am in the line of the very Puritans who for so long tried to keep those early Episcopalians from building their church! Perhaps, my being here, in itself, shows how far we’ve come.

Among my much more learned and spiritual colleagues here tonight I wondered: “Why me?” and I concluded that it must be that I’m the obvious choice because, in many years of interfaith work, I’ve made more mistakes and embarrassed myself more often, so I’m the expert.

Reading Edward Getlein’s somewhat over-the-top 1976 history of Trinity Church, I was struck by these sentences: “In 1754, we perceive Trinity as the disadvantaged minority struggling gallantly to achieve its place in the municipal sun; arguing with telling force and crystalline logic for freedom and justice, against a solidly established adversary. Trinity, it can be argued, introduced the whole idea of religious freedom and church/state separation to the colony. Huzzah and kudos, to be sure, but then, the disaffected minority always polemicizes for liberty and justice ... for change, really, while those in power just as inevitably come down solidly on the side of the status quo. The true test comes in maintaining those egalitarian values after attaining power and wealth.”

We come to celebrate how much has changed, but also to accept Getlein’s challenge — to seek those places where historic disadvantage may have turned to contemporary exclusion.

So, it is worth looking back and asking: What happened between 1750 and 1816 to turn what had been clearly mutual contempt and anathematizing between the Puritans and the Anglicans into what we can guess was at least grudging tolerance?

I’m no historian, but I want to suggest as the cause, a rather homely virtue, mostly forgotten these days, rarely practiced, and often dismissed: Neighborliness.

Neighborliness is the simple virtue of recognizing how we are drawn together by shared experiences, and how, perhaps, we aren’t so different after all. Raking leaves on the same afternoon. Sharing the name of an electrician. Dropping off a mis-delivered package.

I imagine that sometime after 1784, when the Episcopalians were forgiven for their prevailing Tory sympathies, and were readmitted to the voter’s rolls of New Haven after the Revolution, that just living alongside each other brought Congregationalists and Episcopalians  to a kind of unremarked acceptance, that turned into active interest, and finally to a genuine welcome into shared identity  as citizens of our great city.

I’ve worked for about twenty-five years on building interfaith relationships at schools and colleges, first in a multi-religious setting in South India,  then in solidly-red rural Pennsylvania, and finally here in deep blue New Haven.

Sometimes people ask me — why do you do this? Some say it’s to save the world from religious extremism. Others say it’s to fulfill some checklist of diversity requirements. Or perhaps it’s even the guilt of the old religious establishment. They make inter-religious work a somewhat grim and earnest duty.

I want to suggest, instead, that inter-faith relationship is a joy, an adventure, and a gift. It is not motivated by some universal or abstract benevolence, but by the presence of real, quirky people next door — people of other faiths or no faith, who share my life and my community.

I remember when I was chaplain at an interreligious Christian school in India — (I can explain that contradiction another time) — I was asked to help organize suhur meals -- breakfasts for our small Muslim student group during Ramadan. It meant organizing a cook, getting supplies, and arriving at 4 a.m. or so every day for a month to greet the students who straggled in from dormitories scattered around the town,  and then straggled back for an hour or two of sleep before school.

Years later, school alumni remarked to me how grateful they were. With a tone of amazement, they said that they never thought a Christian minister would not only allow, but sponsor and organize a Muslim religious observance. I had never thought much about it. These were our students, this was their required religious duty, what kind of teachers would we be to deny this to them?

Perhaps it was that I was very much aware, as a Christian, of being in a religious minority in India, and just how important it was when our existence was recognized.

I was shocked that some gave me great credit for doing something that seemed only normal and neighborly. But I think that’s how neighborliness works. I treat you as I wish you would treat me, again, not in some abstract sense, but practiced every day, and growing slowly deeper.

Neighborliness is the recognition that we share space. When my falling tree limb  pulled down a whole block of utility poles, I apologized to all my neighbors who spent a long, hot, night without power, and, perhaps grudgingly, they reassured me.

I imagine those long-ago Puritans and Anglicans slowly realizing that, though their neighbors were absolutely wrong theologically, they weren’t bad neighbors. They contributed to the common good. Yes, they worshipped in an evil and devilish manner, but still, they worshipped! In spite of their real differences, they found they could do more together than divided. And perhaps those Puritans remembered when they were the oppressed minority.

Historically, every call to religious intolerance begins by asking us to set aside our human instinct toward neighborliness. The demagogues say: “They may look normal, those people. They may look like they’re not really very different from us. But they are.  They are hiding something. They are part of a secret plot. They are nefarious and duplicitous, and even if they appear nice and friendly, in the end, their true, deep evil nature will come out.” It may be expressed as mere suspicion: “They’re so different!  I don’t trust them, do you?”

I remember my Professor, Robin Lovin, once saying:
“The best way to dehumanize another human being  is to presume going in that they are deluded or evil.” The challenge is to imagine that they came to their beliefs or culture for good reasons that fit their context.

The change we need today isn’t for our Muslim, or Jewish or Buddhist neighbors to get out there and convince folks they’re OK. The change that made way for this church 200 years ago wasn’t that the Episcopalians convinced the Congregationalists they were OK. The Congregationalists changed their minds. Today, shouldn’t expect our religious neighbors to justify themselves or educate us about their ways. The joyful work is ours — to tell the intolerant — no — I’ve gotten to know my neighbors, and they’re not who you say they are.

Part of the adventure of inter-religious community is discovering that people are different just because they are different, their difference is not somehow targeted at me. One of my Jewish colleagues once told me: “At first, I thought all the things you Christians do were directed at me.  But, over time, I realized you’re just weird.” Weird, not like crazy or dangerous, but weird like you say it to your best friend: “Gosh, you’re weird.”

It’s like my neighbors in Spring Glen. They come and go at the strangest times. Their family arrangements are curious. They make highly questionable gardening choices. But I would never question their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so long as its on their side of the line. We’re different as can be, but I know from experience that they would drop everything and come to help me if I needed it; as I would for them.

The triumph of tolerance is not about being nice to each other — it’s not even these gatherings of wonderful,  but already convinced, advocates. The triumph of tolerance is caring enough about my neighbor to keep bumping up against those differences – to keep asking intelligent questions when we don’t know — and to keep apologizing when we presume we do know. Like any real relationship, it grows through steady, regular contact and shared experience.

Today, we look back 200 years, and the rancor, intolerance and just plain cussedness of our colonial ancestors seems quaint and strange. How could anyone have cared so much about Episcopal versus Congregational? (I know there are three of you out there who still care — that’s wonderful)

But, perhaps, history will reward us with a moment of humility in fifty or a hundred years, when our grandchildren or great grandchildren look back and  ask: “really?  people were excluded because of that? people were really afraid of each other because of that?

But we won’t get there because we’re nice,  liberal, or high-minded. We’ll get there because we engaged with that stranger next door and shared enough humility, hospitality and empathy to begin seeing them as a neighbor. We took seriously what our religious traditions say about finding the truth about our faith as we live it in the eyes of strangers. You are my neighbor, and no matter what demagogues may say about you, who they say you really are or what you really believe, about what you’re really up to and why I need to be afraid of you, I can say – no. Not my neighbors.  I see them everyday. I see her with her kids and her parents. I see him in his bathrobe coming out to get the paper. She came over when the ambulance pulled up to my house. I know these people far better than  the supposed pundits or demagogues. Yes, they’re weird. But they’re my neighbors. So I have to say to those: Don’t mess with them.

Kevin Powell wrote this week about Martin Luther King, Jr. for CNN and said: “Yes, it was right there in the "I Have a Dream" speech -- when Dr. King talked of this conversation among us, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics,  coming together to sing in the words of a Negro spiritual,  because it had to be a two-way street:  I can learn from you but you can also learn from me.  That is how we do more than tolerate each other. That is how we come to respect and love each other.”