Author Archives: layt2013

Stop the Gun Violence

By Jackie O’Ryan


They gathered at the temple and it was the first of such a gathering. They were interfaith leaders speaking out in unison on a political issue. They were rabbis, bishops, an imam, cathedral pastors, several reverends, women religious, an evangelical pastor, a Jesuit priest, and more. And, regardless of the particular faith each held, all were there to denounce gun violence with one voice.

The gathering was at Temple De Hirsch Sinai and they were there to urge a moral response to those killed in the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut just one week earlier. They asserted that preventing gun violence is not only a political matter; it is a solemn religious obligation and the only appropriate religious response is sustained moral outrage and focused moral action until something substantial is accomplished in Congress and in our Washington State Legislature.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner stepped forward first. “We understand that preventing gun violence is not a simple matter and that honest, well-intentioned people will differ on exactly what measures are required,” he said. “But we must make a start. We ask our elected officials to put the welfare of our children and the safety of our citizens ahead of partisan concerns and enact substantive gun violence preventative measures in 2013.”

Rev. Dr. Sandy Brown, pastor at Seattle’s First United Methodist Church, was—and still is—a main force in the call for a faithful voice. He said, “I feel clergy are moving beyond the mourning phase and we’re now impatient for an end to gun violence and mass shootings. We believe our faith traditions challenge our communities to live in peace. That’s why we now take this prophetic and public stand.”

“If we are honest about whether or not we are doing enough to protect children, the answer is no,” said Bishop Greg Rickel of the Diocese of Olympia. “There have been 181 shootings at schools across the United States since Columbine. We are getting used to it, and this is something we should never get used to.”

Clergy have mourned with families all too often. That must have been part of the motivation behind this landmark gathering. They are calling for an end to the violence that lands them in the living rooms of families who have lost loved ones to gun violence year in and year out. That’s why 200 clergy from across Washington State signed Faith Action Network’s petition denouncing “Gun Appreciation Day” on Martin Luther King weekend.

Leslie Braxton, pastor of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship in Renton, said, “Why can’t we move away from the gun war and gun culture of the 18th and 19th century? For us to not have the courage to change laws that don’t make sense, makes us all enablers to mass murder.”

Since Newtown, how many people have been killed by guns? The running count by Slate is 1,619 (at this writing).

There are no words in the sacred Scriptures of the Christian, Jewish or Islamic traditions that either opposes common sense gun violence preventative measures or supports any right to automatic weapons that fire 100 shots in a single minute.

But what can we do?

House Bill 1588 is one of the most significant gun violence prevention measures introduced in our legislature in decades. It would require universal background checks for ALL gun sales in the state—including gun shows. Please tell your legislators and the governor that you support this legislation. The bill will be getting a hearing soon in the House Judiciary Committee.

Leave a message for the Governor, your 2 Representatives, and your Senator by calling the Legislative Hotline: 1-800-562-6000.

Then, E-mail your Legislators and Governor Inslee and tell them clearly that you support expanding universal background checks with HB 1588.

If you don’t know who your Legislators are, look them up on the Find Your Legislator webpage.

“We need to do more than just wring our hands about terrible things that happen,” said Fr. Michael G. Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral. “Those things happen in a society that we are all part of, a society that we have the power to influence and to change—maybe not in big ways, but certainly in real ways,” he said. “And it’s time to do it.”

It is our solemn religious obligation.

Jackie O’Ryan is the Co-Director of the Faith Action Network (FAN).


Don’t Balk. Walk the Talk

by Rabbi Anson Laytner

I was recently at a meeting to discuss interreligious (or interfaith) programming.  As soon as one participant mentioned the words “interfaith dialogue”, eyes rolled, lungs sighed, and bodies squirmed.

When—and why—did interfaith dialogue get such a dubious reputation?

Why, I have to ask, is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake so undervalued?  Would we criticize a doctor or a scholar for wanting to learn more about her/his field of interest?  So what’s wrong with people of faith learning about other faiths through interfaith dialogue?

If we’re going to interact with people of other faiths then it is essential to know something about their worldview, beliefs and practices, and they of ours.  Sure, one can read a book, but even a book is a poor substitute for an encounter with real live human beings with a different faith tradition.

But that is precisely the problem: people.

Many people do not know how to present effectively.  Interfaith dialogue seems to conjure up sessions of endless talk about theological matters.  I have attended many such sessions.   Some were better than others, usually depending on whether or not the presenter knew how to engage the listeners.  More often than not, the sessions were just simply boring.

A second aspect of the problem is that most people are conflict adverse, meaning that we will go to great lengths to paper over real, legitimate differences in favor of bland, usually superficial, statements of harmony.  Although harmony is well and good, it is through intellectual conflict and spiritual challenge that real connections are made.

A third component is that we tend to take refuge in our dogmas rather than expose ourselves as thinking, spiritually-questing people.  Thus many in interfaith dialogues simply repeat what they’ve learned that their faiths believe rather than how they themselves believe.  True, you learn about other faiths, but when do you really encounter the people around the table with you?

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of Union for Reform Judaism, offered four principles to guide meaningful interfaith dialogues:

  • First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences.
  • Second, interreligious exchanges become compelling when participants give expression to their religious passions.
  • Third, interreligious dialogue engages when we discuss what we all consider to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own faith-traditions.
  • Fourth, interreligious dialogue becomes real when we talk about what in our own traditions and communities we don’t like and then talk frankly about why that it is so.

In my own experience, there is a fifth important principle:  talk must lead to action.  The purpose of most interfaith dialogues is the pursuit of knowledge in order to promote better understanding of one’s fellow human beings in order to build a better society.  This is a noble purpose.  But, in my own case, ten years of engaging in “pure” interfaith dialogue while directing community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle led to exactly nothing.

It was only when I became executive director of Multifaith Works (currently Rosehedge-Multifaith Works), an organization that provides housing and supportive services for people living with AIDS, that I came to appreciate the value of practical—or applied—interfaith dialogue.

We didn’t have the luxury of sitting around discussing the various meanings of suffering, or the theological import, if any, of AIDS.  There were people dying every day and countless more who needed help while still living.  Instead, people of faith simply rolled up their sleeves and dove into the work of accompanying the dying and supporting the living.

Later, when there was time to reflect, we could talk about what our various faiths teach about caring for the sick, helping the poor and homeless, or traditional attitudes towards homosexuality, or the meaning of suffering.  First we came together to act, then we could talk on the basis of shared experience.  And that made all the difference to our conversation.

What we found, of course, was that all our faiths teach compassion for the sick and dying.  And, while many faiths or denominations had issues with homosexuality, our contact with living human beings softened all but the most judgmental of hearts.  From our experiences, we could talk meaningfully and groundedly and honestly.

Our organization wasn’t alone in discovering this principle.  STM’s own Faith and Family Homelessness project, Habitat for Humanity, Earth Ministry and other interfaith or single faith organizations likewise are built around this principle:  You need to walk the talk before you can genuinely talk the talk.


Rabbi Anson Laytner is program manager of Seattle University School of Theology & Ministry’s Interreligious Initiative.

The Inheritance

By Rev. Michael Denton


We almost didn’t make it to any of the Seattle Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations last week.  I don’t remember a year I haven’t attended some sort of celebration, somewhere.

MLK was my very first hero.  The elementary school I attended near Cleveland, Ohio during the mid-seventies was made up of predominantly African-American students.  We celebrated not just Martin Luther King Day but more like Martin Luther King Week and it was wonderful.  You’d walk down the halls and hear this speech or that speech being played in different classrooms.  There were child-drawn portraits of King lining the walls.  Bulletin boards were filled with black and white pictures depicting some of the history of the civil rights movements up to then as well poems and essays written by children about themes like equality, justice and peace.  The week would end with an assembly where drama, readings and music was shared (I knew all he words to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” before I knew the words to “The Star Spangled Banner”).  Awards would be given out for good and improved behavior culminating in the most coveted award at Caledonia Elementary School: “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Citizenship Award.”  It was, essentially, an award for being kind, fair and responsible; the root values of the whole of human rights, really.

I loved those days.  It wasn’t just that the celebrations themselves were wonderful but that, although we might not have had the words for it at that time, we were being handed and entrusted with a legacy.  We were respected, as children, in ways that we all experienced few other places.  Every day, the content of character was lifted up as much as the content of all other aspects of our education.  It’s sometimes hard, now, to believe that such a place existed.

So, the fact that I almost didn’t make it to any of the MLK Day celebrations was no small thing.  Well, kind of a small thing.  More specifically, a small person.

Not too long ago, I really didn’t think I’d ever be married again, but meeting Lauren changed that.  I never really thought I would be a parent either, but Leo, our not quite one month old child, – beautifully, insistently, and lovingly – changed that.  I spent MLK morning staring in to Leo’s eyes and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do anything else.

Having a child is like unintentionally stumbling in to a time machine.  Every new experience with Leo is cause for reflection on every similar past experience and also calls for reflection on how that new experience might become a part of his life.  I really thought that having a child would be the end of what I thought was a more contemplative life and instead I’m surprised to find that it’s helped me discover the heart of a contemplative life.  I never really understood that staring in to the eyes of your child was an experience of prayer.  As I find myself trying to empathize with my son so that I can respond to his every need, I do a lot of imagining of what it must have been like to have been his age and thinking about what was going on in the world when I was his age.

I was born in 1968 and when I, like Leo, was not quite one month old, gunfire was heard in Memphis and the man who would become my hero was surrounded and held by loved ones as his life was wrenched away from him on a hotel balcony.  Did I hear snippets of speeches as he was eulogized on the news?  Did I hear sirens wailing as they rushed to riots and other demonstrations?  Did I hear people talk in hushed voices about what had happened?  Before I was five, there would be a lot more violence like this; another Kennedy would die; students would be shot at Kent State and Jackson State; wars would rage and come to an end and so, so much more.

Here was this child in my lap, now, and in that moment I wondered what stories he would know about the time around his birth.  Would he hear about the shootings of children in an elementary school called Sandy Hook?  Would he learn about the wars of this place and this time?  Would he wonder what it was like to live in a time before gay marriage was legal nationally?  Would it seem as though we had turned a blind eye to climate change?  Here was this child in my lap and, as Lauren and I talked about whether or not to head downtown to the MLK march, we remembered that legacy that we had been handed and entrusted with.

The three of us bundled up, got on the light rail, and headed downtown.

Rev. Michael Denton is the Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Strangers in a Not-So-Strange Land

By Rev. Eliana Maxim

President Barack Obama’s administration officials and political pundits of all stripes have indicated that January is the month for the president to make a push on immigration reform if there is to be any hope of real change. Gun control, fiscal cliffs and international affairs not withstanding, it’s safe to say that some significant move will be made by this administration to propose reform.

The most recent election has also made both political parties in the US acutely aware at the power of the Latino vote and the potential wielding of this power on issues near and dear to their hearts.

Economists have pointed out tangible benefits of extending immigration reform.

–      Legalizing the 11 million plus undocumented workers in this country would boost our nation’s economy. Tax revenues would increase as would legitimate businesses, which would provide employment for others.

–      DREAMers, undocumented young people who because of their illegal status cannot pursue higher education or employment, would be an asset (professionally, creatively, etc.) to an aging population.

There are many more reasons to support comprehensive immigration reform. People are being forced to live in the shadows of society, families are torn apart by deportation and access to basic services is compromised. Anyone who has ever had to deal with immigration law or navigate Homeland Security knows the incredible maze they present. Now imagine dealing with it when English is not your first language. It’s not uncommon to hear of individuals spending 6 – 8 months in detention centers awaiting deportation. Young adults, brought to this country as small children, find themselves being deported to countries they don’t remember, with languages they barely understand.

At best, the US immigration process is unwieldy and capricious. At worst, it is unjust and inhumane.

As people of faith, particularly those of us who follow Jesus Christ, we point to the Biblical call to welcome the stranger and love our neighbors as top reasons for our support. We refer to the God-given dignity of each person, acknowledging that God created and loves each person, regardless of his or her immigration status.

We are reminded throughout Scripture that, like current immigrants, we were once strangers in a strange land: “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9; New Living Translation)

As a pastor, I am sensitive to those who darken the church doorway as a newcomer or outsider. It is particularly to this group of people that I believe God calls us to stand beside, to comfort and advocate for, in good and bad times. Perhaps my sensitivity has less to do with my pastoral call and more with my own experience as an immigrant.

Although my parents and I emigrated in the early 60’s with green cards in hand, we arrived to a culture that was outwardly bigoted and overtly racist. My parents had left behind their family and friends, culture, and all they knew, in order to strike out in a new country filled with the promise of a better future. They realized that as much as they loved their homeland of Colombia, this adoptive country would offer them – and their children – a better future, opportunities for education, and well-being.

Despite doing everything according to the immigration requirements of the time, we were continually questioned whether we belonged here and not so gently asked to go back to where we came from. We had the right documents. We didn’t need to hide, and yet…I know what it’s like to be a foreigner…

Times have changed. I don’t speak with an accent and most people haven’t a clue I didn’t start out as an American. But I remember well what it’s like to be unwelcomed.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be undocumented or, as is more commonly and crudely called, illegal.

As faith communities, we are compelled by our understanding of who God is and who we are to God to extend an extravagant welcome to the foreigners and – perhaps more importantly – to advocate for the alien when they are mistreated or experience injustice.

Jim Wallis, Christian writer and political activist, recently spoke to a group made up of law enforcement, faith and business leaders about the urgent need for immigration reform. “They [undocumented aliens] live in fear and danger in the shadows, even though they are a potentially stable work force that we need. Our utterly broken immigration system enforces unfairness and injustice – and it literally is separating families from one another. Our safety, security, sanity, and, literally, our souls are all compromised by this broken and cruel system. Those who hold the Bibles know this breaks God’s heart and disobeys God’s direct commandments on how we are to treat “the stranger.”

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), is joining other mainline denominations through the Interfaith Coalition by welcoming the new Congress on January 22nd, making sure they know that people of faith demand human immigration reform in 2013.  The message is clear – we desire immigration reform that provides a pathway to full citizenship and prioritize family unity.

For more information on this important call-in day, please visit


Rev. Eliana Maxim is Associate Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Seattle.