What two topics of conversation are taboo at family gatherings? Religion and politics, right?
My experience, however, is just the opposite, at least regarding religion. After writing roughly a hundred articles on religion for Wednesday Journal, my conversations with atheists, Muslims, college presidents, rabbis — the list goes on and on — have almost always resulted in increased trust and respect between myself and the person(s) I interviewed.
Walls came down. Bridges were built. Folks who viewed reality through different lenses were able to stand on common ground.
After experiencing so many of these, what I will call “intimate moments,” I think I figured out why. The goal of a reporter is to listen so carefully to what the persons being interviewed are saying that when they read the article in the paper, we hope they respond with, “He got me right. What he wrote might be a little embarrassing, but he painted a verbal portrait that is true to who I am.”
In contrast, so many of the conversations about religion these days are argumentative; win/lose; I’m going to prove I’m right and you’re wrong. But almost by accident, I discovered that when my primary intention was understanding where people are in their relationship with God, they frequently allowed themselves to become vulnerable and share very personal stories.
Fifty of those stories are included in my recently published book, The Soul of a Liberal Village, the Diversity of Religious Experience in Oak Park, Illinois. Because many of the stories I heard were inspiring — e.g. what Rev. Julie Harley shared a few months after being diagnosed with ALS — I wanted to share them with as wide an audience as possible.
More interesting than inspiring, some chapters are included to document the amazing variety of ways people in the Oak Park area relate to God or seek to live a meaningful life even if they reject any belief in a supreme being.
Two things in my life led to the writing of this book: The first is that most of my adult life, I have found myself — a white boy from a small town in Wisconsin — working in multicultural situations. I was an exchange student at the Tuskegee Institute when Dr. King was killed, taught in Puerto Rico for two years, was pastor of a Forest Park congregation as they transitioned from all white to 30 percent black, and now serve part-time as an assistant pastor at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church in Forest Park.
Along the way, courses in the Doctor of Ministry program at McCormick Seminary in Hyde Park gave me the conceptual lenses through which I could make sense of the ambiguity that inevitably accompanies multicultural situations.
The second thing is that 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with a progressive, disabling neurological disorder which, paradoxically, freed me from full-time work in the parish to be able to hear the wonderful stories included in The Soul of a Liberal Village.
The first chapter of the book attempts to set the context for the stories that follow by making the case that Oak Park is truly a liberal village, and in the last chapter I go out on a limb and reflect on what all of the diversity in this area means.