As president of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill., Steven Timmermans was part of the U.S. president’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a White House initiative aimed at using interfaith cooperation and community service to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.
So it was in his former role that Timmermans attended a White House forum in September for college presidents and other supporters of the initiative. But Timmermans, now executive director of the Christian Reformed Church, hopes that church members too “are lifelong students of history, geography, theology, and sociology so that in our communities and neighborhoods, we know how to relate to those of other faiths (or no faith at all) in a hospitable way that the Holy Spirit will use.”
Timmermans said he was struck by a talk given by David Campbell, director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. “His research suggests that one of the most significant engines of civic engagement in our society is religion—particularly via social relationships built into congregations,” Timmermans said.
Congregations often have to learn and relearn the local contexts in which they worship and minister, he added. Participation in community-based efforts could be for some a powerful tool that propels ministry. “Dr. Campbell talked about the ‘nones,’ that growing segment who identify with no faith tradition. He noted that involvement of people of faith in civic matters can show these ‘nones’ what faith can do in real and authentic ways,” he said.
Timmermans noted that some people greet the term ‘interfaith dialogue’ as a threat, “as if it is trying to find the lowest common denominator among religions.” He doesn’t agree. “Pluralism doesn’t demand some sort of bland commonality; [it] requires that we step into the public square with our religious identities intact.”
“This project isn’t focused on greater Christian unity or cooperation but rather on interfaith literacy and understanding, so desperately needed in a world of deadly conflict and terrorism in the name of religion,” Timmermans said. “I hope that as we await the synodical study committee on [religious persecution] and then act on it as well as on our continuing call to be witnesses, we would become more able to be agents of reconciliation used mightily by the Spirit.”