Noticing the Providential: The Formation of the Multi-Faith Action Project
By: Rev. Dr. Kevin Starcher, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Boise, ID
The establishment of the Multi-Faith Action Project in Boise, Idaho is nothing less than a miracle fashioned by God Almighty. Yes, this assertion is bold and blatantly provocative. Still, it is an authentic perspective of how the challenge of cultivating lives of meaning and purpose in a particular time and particular place came about amongst a diverse group of faith leaders and their respective congregations. Before my reader quickly dismisses the naivete of the assertion, allow me to succinctly describe how the events unfolded, and I invite you to draw your own conclusions.
Providential Scenario #1: An Unlikely Formation. In 2020, two of the current partnering congregations of MAP were already communicating about how to address the issue of race relations in America from a Christian perspective in Boise, Idaho. In ways that continue to defy explanation at the end of 2020, one of these pastors was contacted about a grant opportunity that could potentially expand this work of ecumenical collaboration. It continues to feel like the Lives of Meaning and Purpose Grant was already seeking our project before the project ever got off the ground.
Providential Scenario #2: The Perfect Strangers. At the beginning of the official grant program in late 2021, local faith leaders were not contacted based upon previously existing relationships, but contacted simply because the effort was prayed over and it was discerned that, in our context, these selected individuals felt like natural allies and important conversation partners. At the end of the day, faith leaders from four different traditions, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were sitting at the initial meeting. Most of these leaders had never met before, and all were wearing facemasks and sitting 6 feet apart in a well-ventilated room. Somehow over the next two years, these strangers prayed, worshiped, and created a loosely governed organization called the “Multi-Faith Action Project.” This group would work together for the grant project around the shared values of strengthening personal bonds between diverse faith leaders, working together to overcome racism, and promoting communication, dialogue, peace, hope, and healing. These original perfect strangers are now close-knit, authentic friends.
Providential Scenario #3: Not a Cloud in the Sky. After a year or so of meeting and community building, MAP kicked off their first community event. Not knowing what to expect, over 100 community partners showed up for a meal together and a simple invitation to join the MAP around its shared values of community and peacemaking. Religious traditions have long acknowledged the holiness and potential mystery of a shared meal together. Still, with a new group and a first-time public launch, MAP leaders wondered how the event might turn out. Amongst our planning we had to include the unpredictability of Boise weather in late spring for an outdoor event. Would it be hot and humid? Would it be snowing and necessitate less than ideal indoor accommodations? Let the reader understand that this event full of questions and prayer launched under clear blue skies and perfect temperatures for an outdoor kickoff where over 100 community partners gathered. The event was… perfect! Relationships that were introduced at this event continue to bear fruit today.
Providential Scenario #4: Feeding the Hunger. At the Kick-Off event, community members were invited to participate in a follow-up action event called Feed The Hunger, a meal packaging and distribution program. In September, over 500 individuals from our various faith traditions showed up to package over 100,000 meals that were distributed to various food pantries throughout our region. While raising the issue of food insecurity, what made this event extra special is that our faith communities intentionally intermingled and worked side by side for a common cause. Perhaps we are observing not only the response to physical hunger in our community, but I believe the beautiful spirit of this event helped feed a spiritual hunger for community where individuals and families can be drawn together for something larger than ourselves and make a real positive difference for the sake of our community. MAP continues to hear stories of personal ecumenical and inter-faith relationships being built from this event.
Providential Scenario #5: What Happens When a Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Latter-Day Saint Meet Together For Worship? Because of the deep trust and friendships that have been built through the faith leaders, local congregations have begun collaborating in the commemoration of religious activities. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and a special Christmas program have seen our faith communities come together in intentional ways to supersede any doctrinal differences as we week to maintain our hope in the unity of God, and the unity of God’s people. What an inexplicable joy it has been to observe people of different traditions experience the One-ness of community in the name God. Many of the leaders have said that these experiences would not have been possible except for the work and community of MAP.
Providential Scenario #6: The End of the Beginning. As the official grant period was drawing towards its conclusion, the MAP leaders gathered to talk about next steps, and what would become of our group and organization. We celebrated what God had done in our midst, and we were at a significant decision-making point. Should we A) Bring our “official” work of an organization to a close, write a genuinely strong grant report about how this grant cultivated deep meaning and purpose amongst ourselves and faith communities while believing that the essence of the grant would live on the hearts of participants, or B) continue the challenging administrative work of organizational development, fund raise, and continue to live into the mystery the God has been unfolding before us. The miracle of this scenario is this: That a group of already busy, over-committed people of faith with other roles and other primary responsibilities strongly reacted against the easy proposal of option A, and strongly pushed that our group would continue the good and beautiful work that we believe is simply still beginning.
Perhaps one could argue that the creation of MAP was simply a happenstance of fortuitous circumstances, and merely included participants that were eager to make religious meaning of the grant project. I confess that this attitude of immanence could be used by those more skeptical to describe what happened amongst our group. But I refuse to believe that all the mysteriously beautiful, and dare say, inexplicable happenings is simply the accidental providence of chance. In their essence, all the faith traditions at the MAP table believe in a transcendent God who, in all of God’s mystery, continues to create, sustain, reconcile, and draw the creation toward the divine. MAP is actively working in and for the sake of this divine mystery, and its members strongly believe that this God will continue to nurture us for the sake of God and God’s people. As we come to the end of our official grant period, we acknowledge with all the people throughout history who believe in miracles that the conclusion of our official grant period is not the end, but maybe only the end of our beginning, and we look forward with God-ly anticipation for the miracles that may continue to come. We are sure that difficulties will present themselves, but as we look back on our project thus far, we are convinced that that the God of resurrection has been guiding us all along.
My dear reader, make of all this as you will.