The Rev. Steven D. Martin speaks about interfaith engagement at Eastern Mennonite University. A filmmaker and United Methodist pastor, Martin is director of communications and development for the National Council of the Churches of Christ, a Washington D.C.-based ecumenical organization formed in 1950 to address the "irony of proclaiming Christ’s gospel of love and salvation in a culture of acrimony and injustice." (Photo by Joaquin Sosa)

Communications director for National Council of Churches shares his interfaith journey

After Sept. 11, The Rev. Steven D. Martin found himself the subject of much interest. Suddenly every public television station was scrambling for material on Muslims, and his first major film project Muslims in Appalachia: Islam in Exile was the only sympathetic piece available.

His notoriety as interpreter and interlocutor quickly grew beyond his 100-person Tennessee congregation.

Martin, now director of communications and development for the National Council of the Churches of Christ, visited Eastern Mennonite University last week to talk about both his filmmaking work, its deeply personal effect on his understanding of humanity, and a new interfaith initiative called “Know Your Neighbor.” He works from an office on Capital Hill in Washington D.C., where he represents a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches from more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.

Martin spoke at a seminary service, hosted a luncheon on interfaith engagement in the United States, and showed his 2005 film, “Theologians Under Hitler” in a visit that was co-sponsored by the Center for Interfaith Engagement (CIE) and Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

‘Loving enemies’

Martin is “a man who loves deep conversation, but also uses humor and sarcasm to soften the blow of living in such a broken world,” said Bex Simmerman, a CIE research assistant who has been Martin’s friend and mentee for a decade.

She introduced Martin for his seminary sermon titled “Loving Enemies,” which asked piercing questions about Christian America’s relationship with American Muslims.

“For centuries, Muslims and Christians have been enemies. Why?” Martin asks. “From the time of the Crusades and even before then, they have been them.” Martin related this to the teachings of Matthew 5, in which Jesus instructs his listeners to “love your enemy.”

He shared how his first major film project caused him to reevaluate those he had been taught were his enemies.

“This was a process of falling in love with people,” Martin explained. He began interviewing Knoxville-area Muslims, trying to understand their lives and place in the largely Christian South. But he ended merely interviewing people whose humanity he admired.

That transition of perspective gave him a new lens with which to read Matthew 5, and he invited those listening in the seminary to apply it to their own lives.

“Whether [the interaction is] Muslim – Christian, Muslim – Jew, Christian – Jew, neighbor who likes dogs – neighbor who doesn’t like dogs, Republican – Democrat, alt-right – alt-left, corporate – Native American tribe,” said Martin, “we as followers of Jesus must engage in acts of love and kindness, and it can’t be faked. It can’t be feigned; it can’t be done with an ulterior motive. It must be done at our own risk.”

Connecting with others

Martin also talked about “Know Your Neighbor,” an initiative born at a White House convention on religious pluralism. Concerned about the recent rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric, member organizations have created religious resources and toolkits to help facilitate learning about other faiths, including how to organize a town hall meeting and host a “speed faithing” event.

Trina Trotter Nussbaum, CIE interim director,appreciated Martin’s point that we are challenged to find people “different from you” to engage with.

“This is why it’s important to find other ways to connect,” says Nussbaum. She shares Martin’s opinion that EMU is one of those places “where theologians and practitioners come together and have real conversations about interfaith engagement, conflict, what to do about bigotry” and other important questions that are important in building healthy relationships and civil society.

After visiting EMU, Martin joined over 500 clergy on Nov. 3 at the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s camp in North Dakota opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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