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IFYC Alum Kevin Singer at the 2019 ILI

IFYC Alum Kevin Singer at the 2019 ILI


[MUSIC PLAYING] So it was my sophomore
year of college, and I was booking bands at
a little coffeehouse called Java 101. Oh, I got some laughs there. One day, I received a call
from a local Southern Baptist pastor. I was very surprised
to hear his voice. He said, could we host our
annual staff Christmas party at the coffeehouse? So this is a bit of an
unconventional request, but sure. Why not? And then he said, well, by the
way, do you play an instrument? Because we need someone to play
45 minutes of Christmas songs for the party. I said OK. I do play guitar. I’m 197.6% broke, like shells
and cheese every night broke. Sure. What’s the worst
thing that can happen? So the day comes,
and the pastor– he’s an old, burly man by
the name of Dan Stovall– walks in in a full
blown Santa suit, like bowl full of
jelly, sackful of toys, the belt, the hat, the
shoes, with 15 really Baptist people with him. And I was somewhere in that
zone between really frightened and wildly entertained. Has anyone ever been there? So after fumbling through about
45 minutes of Christmas songs– it was not my American
Idol audition you’ve seen on YouTube– he hands me a check for $500. So it’s five Benjamins. Five Benjamins. And then he says, I want you
to come work for my church, where I ended up working
until I graduated. What really captivated
me about pastor Dan was that he believed
conservatively, but he loved liberally. And such a great guy,
so generous, he actually just recently retired after
pastoring this little, Southern Baptist church for
about 30 years. And now, he’s
running a nonprofit where he gives free furniture
to international students that come to Northern
Illinois University. Now, fast forward to the
summer after my sophomore year, when my girlfriend
of two years broke up with me– broke up with me! But in all seriousness, it was
a pretty dark season in my life. And that was about the
time I met Derrick Joseph. Now, Derrick Joseph,
he loved Chinese food. Not just the General
Tsao, okay, everything. And he would take me out for
lunch, dinner faithfully, every week. And I was a total
post-breakup mess. And it really
surprised me that Derek was willing to talk to me. You don’t know how dumb
my questions were, y’all. I can’t even tell
you what they were. But late hours into the night,
just giving me his presence. And Derek worked for
an organization maybe you’ve heard of, called Crew. And maybe that’s
surprising to you. He was definitely
surprising to me. And really, I wanted to start
off with those vignettes, so to speak. Because that was the
tradition in which I learned how to
be an Evangelical. That is the tradition
that I was raised in. It was these two men who
continually surprised me again and again with their
generosity, their hospitality, and their presence. So now, it’s 2015. Fast forward, and I’m a student
at Wheaton College, which is about 45 minutes,
let’s say, this direction. And a very popular
political science professor by the name
of Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Maybe you’re following already. She wore a hijab, and she wrote
a very controversial Facebook post, in which she wrote that
Christians and Muslims worship the same God. And if you know this story,
you know what comes next– an absolutely crazy
public fallout. There’s debates in
faculty meetings. There’s fights going
on in residence halls. There’s protests. There’s press conferences. There’s donors on both
sides of the debate pulling their funding from the school. It was a massive public
relations disaster. And as a theology student,
I kind of expected, like, are we going to talk about this? I had one professor. She said, anyone
have any questions? OK, and just moved on. It was so surprising
to me, because there’s a mosque a block away. Do we not care how this looks? Do we not care how they
feel in this divisive time on our campus that’s
all surrounding these comments about
the relationship between Christianity and Islam? Nothing. And now, in this current
political moment, there are so-called
Evangelical pastors who are saying the most reckless
and violent things about Islam from their pulpits and from
their social media pages. And you know what’s ironic? Sometimes I wonder if they
and I worship the same God. It’s really these
trends that led me to start Neighborly Faith. Maybe you’ve seen us
in the exhibit hall. Marr? I don’t know if
Marr’s out there, but he’s been doing a great job. So thank you, Marr. Our mission is really simple. And if you think it’s a tall
order, I agree with you. We want to see Evangelicals
write a new story– a story in which
we are no longer known as a voting
block who cares only about our own
rights, but a group of people who are
known as the most hospitable, self-sacrificial,
and loving members of their society. As an Evangelical
interfaith leader– it sounds like an oxymoron– I am continually asking myself– this is my ethic– how can I surprise my
neighbors of other faiths? How can I surprise people like
Pastor Dan and Derek surprised me? Like Jesus surprised
me through the actions of those two godly men. This is the Evangelical
tradition I was brought up in. This is the tradition
I was brought up in. Let me give you just a
really short example of what I mean by surprise, because
we’ve all been surprised by Evangelicals before. [LAUGHTER] Recently, I invited
two mosques to come to my very conservative
church in North Raleigh, North Carolina. That sounded weird together, but
North Raleigh, North Carolina. My church meets in a very
small, conservative school. And most members have
never met a Muslim and have absolutely no clue
what a Muslim believes. My friend, Sabine, who
represented one of the mosques, she said, that’s so great
you’re inviting us to dinner. Just get veggie pizza. That’s great. Just get veggie pizza. I said, who likes veggie pizza? I’m not getting veggie pizza. So I go to my pastor’s. I say, we’re going
to ignore that. I said, we are
going to go all out. We spent, I want to
say, $800 on 60 people. And we bought food from
the best Middle Eastern restaurant in Raleigh. And I’m telling you, when
they walked in that night, and they saw the chicken
shawarma– everybody like chicken shawarma? Great. I knew I’d get a positive
reaction from that. Chicken shawarma, gyros,
beef kabobs, Greek salad, hummus, and even
falafel for some reason. They kept saying
over and over again– this is what they said. They used this exact word. They said that they
were surprised. They were surprised,
and they were grateful. And the cool thing is
that this gesture really laid the groundwork for what
were some really authentic conversations that night. I had a friend. His name’s Jeff–
great guy, great heart. He tried hugging everyone. Everyone– children, women, men. I said, you got to
stop doing that. This is true. There’s a lot of grace shown
that night on both sides. But the cool thing is that
we had our weekly Bible study that week. And you know Evangelicals. We love our weekly
Bible studies. But this is what she said. She said, I didn’t want to go. She said, my mom
told me not to go. My friends told me not to go. She said, I went, Kevin,
because I’m your friend. Great. But she couldn’t stop talking
about how much she loved it. And this is my favorite part. She said, I was so
surprised that they were so open to talking about faith. Sometimes, we
Evangelicals think we’re the only ones who
are committed enough to our faith to talk about it. But she said, I
was so surprised. They were talking
about judgment day. They were talking about Jesus. They were talking
about Heaven and Hell. I couldn’t believe
how open they were. So when we started
Neighborly Faith, there was actually a leader of a
very large interfaith movement. Let’s call him Graham. This is what he said. He told us that it would
be a waste of time. I actually found this on Twitter
and copy and pasted it here. He said, “I will be frank
and upfront with you, Kevin. I wouldn’t put energy
into this, and I didn’t offer any
encouragement to you precisely because I feel like
you are bailing water where there is a hole in the ship.” Now, it’s been about
five years since we started Neighborly Faith. And I have so many stories
like Kristin’s story. We have Fellows at
Neighborly Faith. We have Evangelical students
that we’re empowering, and we are coaching, and
we are giving seed funding to launch initiatives
on their campuses to basically start relationships
with local Muslims. So let me tell you
about Cody Beasley. Cody grew up in a
Christian home school. I’m telling you, this was
full blown home-school. He told me that they
had a home-school prom. First of all, I didn’t
even know that was a thing. He said a brother and
sister came together to the prom wearing
matching camo suits. I said, nope. [LAUGHTER] Nope. But seriously, he attends a very
conservative Southern Baptist seminary. When Cody interviewed
for the fellowship, let’s just say we
had our doubts. So we actually
didn’t accept him. But when one of our
Fellows had to drop out, we said, OK, we’re going
to give Cody a chance. Let me read to you
something Cody just wrote a few weeks ago in an Op Ed. He said, “when I first
learned about pluralism, I immediately became defensive. I assumed it was nothing
more than moral relativism. But I learned that
pluralism addresses some of the most
difficult questions that face our nation by
advocating for human beings on the basis of the image of
God and love for neighbor.” He wrote, “the
image of God compels me to listen to and
understand someone’s worldview without devaluing
their personhood. Not because all truth
claims are equal, but because all people are. If I neglect the basic
dignity of a person based on their religious
convictions, then I have violated the created
order that God has ordained. People embody the
ideals of pluralism when they treat
fellow human beings with respect and dignity,
listening to and learning from the viewpoint of the
other, whether it’s Democrat, Republican, Muslim, or Jew.” This was Cody who wrote this. And believe me when I say if
Cody can embrace pluralism, any Evangelical can. Now, I recognize for
some of you in this room, and this is quite
serious, you have been tempted to give up on
Evangelicals like Graham gave up on Evangelicals, and
frankly, for good reason. I’m not up here to pretend
that my community has not done really hurtful things. I’m not here to do that. But my prayer is that,
in the coming year, you might be open to
being surprised again. In some ways, I think the
success of true interfaith work relies on our willingness to
be surprised by those we deeply disagree with again and again,
and not to give up on them. Imagine if Kristin
had never gone to that dinner at my church. Imagine if we never accepted
Cody to the fellowship. Where would they be? When we’re no longer
open to being surprised, that’s when our
interfaith work is no longer surprising or
compelling to anyone. That is when we reinforce the
stereotype that interfaith groups are echo chambers. So I’m going to close, here. I want to introduce you to
another one of our Fellows who’s here, named
Carissa Sephero. If you could wave, Carissa. Carissa goes to Taylor
University in Indiana. Carissa is from a small,
conservative town in Ohio. And just this last
week, Carissa says, “I approached the elders of
my very conservative church about taking a field
trip to a local mosque. And they agreed to do it.” And this fall, she’s
organizing a world religions week– tell me if I’m
butchering this– at Taylor. And she’s going to be
inviting Muslim students from a local university there
for their very first time. And it’s really students
like Carissa and Cody that are the future leaders
of the Evangelical movement. I’m meeting them all the time. Some of them are
here in our midst. And the cool thing is the future
does look incredibly bright. But my prayer is that the
evangelicals on your campuses would begin to surprise you. But what I ask of you is
that you would give them the chance to do so. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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