Faithful Translators

How do you explain racism to white Christians? How do you explain anti-Semitism to black Christians? How do you explain Islamophobia to Hindus and anti-Sikh violence to Buddhists?   

What emerged in the course of our session at the annual Interfaith Youth Core Alumni Convening was the importance of religious and cultural translators; persons in our communities who convey ideas about their group to people of another in a language that is intelligible to both. In many respects, this appears to be the role that we both play in our respective communities – and one that may be critical for communities of faith that are seeking to collaborate in meaningful and enduring ways.  

One of us is an African American pastor at a high-steepled Presbyterian Church, which historically served primarily white people in Chicago. The other is a rabbi in a synagogue that once housed a Muslim community and is now working to open its doors to a multicultural church. Both of us sit at the crossroads of activism and faith – of pluralism and evangelism (or the Jewish equivalent thereof).  

We each find ourselves able to connect with people of an unusually wide array of backgrounds – and somewhat lonely in the experiences that we have as translators. Our roles, by definition, involve helping people who have not connected readily in the past to do so with greater facility. To us, it means going to trouble spots and areas of complexity, not issues that readily resolve themselves. It is grueling, holy work – a calling to live on the edge of community life in service of its center.   

One of the surprising aspects of the pandemic, and the political polarization that, preceded it has been the emergence of widening gaps between different cultural and spiritual communities. It once seemed that progressive Jews and progressive Muslims shared most values, with some differences in how they prayed and what they ate. They worked hard, were active in civic life, and wanted rising generations to strive for a better life through education. Yet in moments of profound pain, differences became evident.  

The Muslim community that resided within a synagogue experienced the mass shooting of faithful worshippers in New Zealand differently than the Jewish community that housed them did of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Muslim community members gave voice to the belief that those killed during prayer were martyrs who would go straight to heaven. Jewish community members expressed profound anger and fear – coupled with the sense of loss that those who were gunned down were lost to the world forever.   

Similarly, many members of historically black churches, and black Christians more broadly, have relied upon their congregations to provide both a spiritual sanctuary from injustice and a prophetic stride against it. And such, the twin pandemics of COVID and racism have challenged those congregations to not only survive but actively confront these vital issues of the day. By contrast members of majority-white churches have found this institutional mix of activism and spiritual worship difficult to maintain. Though all Christians, the aforementioned communities and traditions have real differences in approach to public life. Their sense of urgency varies. How then is it possible to harness the resources and interests of these diverse communities to make social change without tiptoeing past their differences?    

Indeed, the religious difference has sprung up through the cracks of social fissure – and made evident that our traditions are different and conceive of sacred community and human purpose in fundamentally different ways. In many respects, these differences always resided beneath the surface but became more evident amid unprecedented stresses and renewed challenges.  

All the more reason to translate the significance of our responses. All the more reason to listen and learn. All the more reason to live at the intersection, all the while knowing who we are and why we stand where we do.  

In rabbinic tradition, it is said that a single word can change everything. All the more so a single deed. All the more so multiple deeds. All the more so recurrent deeds – amplified through the community.   

All the more so, we need more translators to help us understand what exists before our eyes, yet remains elusive to our understanding.  


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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.