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Conditional Grace: Working toward Peaceful Relations between Faiths

Imam Deen and Rev. Peter Kainwo pose after sharing the Ebola Message in Sierra Leone. Photo: ©2014 World Vision, Jonathan Bundu

Imam Deen and Rev. Peter Kainwo pose after sharing the Ebola Message in Sierra Leone.
Photo: ©2014 World Vision, Jonathan Bundu

I had a very gratifying dinner with a World Vision supporter last week. Ed and his wife had spent a day at a World Vision project in Ethiopia recently and he was telling me about the experience. He said that one of their most meaningful encounters was meeting a group of clergy, consisting of both Christian and Muslim faith leaders. The pastors and imams admitted that they used to distrust and even hate each other and would cross the road to avoid encountering each other. Yet today they are collaborators and co-laborers for the good of their community. Ed and his wife visited a community-wide childcare program operating in a church, and a program for widows and orphans run by an imam. And today, these faith leaders, former enemies, now smile and touch, a friendly arm on each other’s shoulder.

This change is stunning, worthy of Isaiah’s vision of dangerous animals lying down together.

Parenthetically, World Vision’s pilot of the “Faith-Based Forum” (FBF) project was created in the tinder box of mixed-religion refugee settings. Great distrust turned to enmity and was erupting in violence. Creating clergy dialog and joint programs for the benefit of children was beginning to bear fruit in that setting, and World Vision attempted to apply this same promising idea in well-established mixed-faith communities, where tensions could also simmer and were at times erupting. World Vision itself has experienced some violence against our offices in the past.* FBF is designed to engage the disparate faith communities in their shared commitment to their children, and in the process to build understanding, trust and peaceful relations between the faiths. Three years ago I was in a different region of Ethiopia where we met two nascent FBF groups. They were collegial though still somewhat formal, and they were making early plans to create programs, and were also honoring and even attending each other’s religious holy day events. So Ed’s report was the next gratifying chapter, both in the progress of interpersonal relations and their solid and active programming. These were no longer simply plans, but now established efforts caring for the most vulnerable. And FBF is spreading all over Africa!

Ed said that the imam who ran the outreach for widows and orphans was quite intimidating at first encounter – tall, dark, formal. But as this Muslim cleric began talking about the outreach program to orphans and widows, and the collaboration between the faith communities for the sake of the most vulnerable, his passion shined through and warmed the room.

To Ed, the whole idea of Faith-Based Forums was a great encouragement: “I grew up in a church that talked a lot about grace. But this always seemed to me to be a conditional grace, dependent on a person doing certain things or believing certain things. But here World Vision is extending grace and help to everyone in the community without reservation. There was no withholding of assistance or relationship or engagement as a way to pressure or coerce anyone.”

As I listened to Ed, I thought it interesting that World Vision puts this program under its “Christian Witness” umbrella. We both wondered if some might disagree about this being a “witness”, and yet it struck me as being perfectly so. It mirrors exactly Jesus’ approach to people, and as such, World Vision’s actions here are a living, active witness to Jesus himself, not to mention a reflection of God, who provides the sun and rain to everyone without condition.

“Conditional grace.” It doesn’t even make sense. Yet how often is this exactly the kind of grace I extend, which isn’t grace at all.

Really, is “conditional grace” any kind of witness to the real Jesus? It’s certainly an adulteration of how we claim God treats us. Yet we are so very adept at bending our interpretations to accomplish our agenda or to get others to do our bidding, even to the point of withholding the very love we’ve been shown. Where’s the good news in that?

Lord, have mercy on us. Show us Your grace. And as a result may we extend the same authentic love and grace we have been shown. May we truly be your children, as it is written: “But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44)

* Inter-religious distrust has impacted WV offices including in Afar, Ethiopia, where the office was attacked by an angry mob of youth and the ADP manager was nearly killed. My granddaughter Emmy and I had a powerful experience of being with this man on the day he first encountered some of his former attackers… at their high school! You can read about it here.

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