I grew up in East Texas where most people were Baptists and Methodists, so the most religious diversity I experienced was playing football with my Catholic neighbors.

This all changed when I went to college at The University of Texas at Austin. I met famed atheist Madelyn Marie O’Hair’s daughter. I saw Hari Krishnas chanting in the West Mall. I saw Islamic and Jewish student groups.

I was in cultural and religious overload, but it was very good for me. I took a course on Islam. My horizons were perpetually expanded.

I had many great conversations with a Baptist Bible teacher by the name of Rick Spencer. Most of those occurred over nachos as we reveled in springtime baseball at UT’s Disch-Falk field.

My biggest question was: “How can I have positive interactions with people of other faiths and not compromise my own beliefs?”

Rick shared with me something I had never thought of at my young age. All three of the major western faiths had one common command: “Love you neighbor.”

In his mind, an interaction with people of other faiths that was argumentative and abrasive could not be consistent with this command.

“They will know we are Christians by our love,” Rick emphasized. He would add: “Most people take that as the love we have for one another, but does it not assume we will love everyone else as well?”

I met Robert Parham in the early 1990s when he launched Baptist Center for Ethics (now Good Faith Media). He did great work on this idea of loving all our neighbors as we love ourselves, calling it a common word across faith traditions.

Robert flew to Houston, and we had great interfaith dialogues with the Islamic community. Many of my church members were angered at my participation in the event. Their anger was confusing to me.

Fast forward to 2022 and my current role as a public school teacher.

The first day of this school year, I met a student who was very friendly and outgoing toward me. The next day, he was extremely cool toward me and avoided eye contact. This led to a conversation that changed everything for me.

I asked if I had done anything to offend him. He tried to explain that it was nothing and not to worry. I continued to prod, and the truth came out.

“I am Palestinian and Islamic. I heard yesterday that you teach in a Christian church,” he said. “I know that Christians hate Islamic people, and I thought that you would hate me when you found out who I really am.”

I felt as if I had taken a two-by-four across the forehead.

I explained to him that I was not that kind of Christian. He asked: “How much do you know about my people?”

I taught world religions for seven years at a community college, so I was so grateful to have enough background knowledge to answer his questions. Slowly but surely, I gained his trust.

One day he brought his prayer shawl. I asked him questions about his daily prayers and how he worked that into a busy school schedule. The more he shared about his faith, the more our trust grew and the better his grades became. He is making extraordinary strides as an English language learner.

He asked me last week if I thought the state’s standardized tests, which are administered during Ramadan, were fair to Muslim students who must take these exams while fasting. How hard would it be to schedule a separate test for these students outside Ramadan?

Fast forward to this past week when I gave this student a bag of fruit chews for turning in his work. He said: “Mr. Hogan, you know it’s Ramadan.”

I apologized, and several students began to wonder out loud what would cause a peer to turn down a fruit snack. So, I allowed him to share with the class about Ramadan and why he was fasting.

A student asked me what I thought. My response was: “He and I have had many conversations about our faiths. We might disagree, but he has won my respect and admiration by his commitment to his faith.”

The ballplayer next to him gave him a high five. “Dude … Mr. Hogan’s respect and admiration? Way to go man.”

I posted this story on Facebook. Predictably, a few people felt I was “watering down” my faith by dealing with this student in this way.

I go back to Rick Spencer and Robert Parham: “We must love our neighbor. It’s not optional.”

Holy wars never resolve anything. Open communication and mutual respect are the only paths to dialogue that change the world.

It might not have been world changing, but having a respectful dialogue might have changed my second period class just a little.

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