There’s a verse in the Koran that illustrates how Steven Greenebaum, a lifelong Jew, sees the world.
“We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another,” it reads.
Breaking down denominational lines is Greenebaum’s life work. He’s the founder of Living Interfaith Church in Lynnwood, which embraces all religions and focuses on secular ethical teachings that unite all faiths: love, compassion and harmony.
“This is one of the things I love about interfaith: I can sit down as a Jew with someone who is Christian and someone who is Buddhist,” he said. “It’s not that we won’t get mad at each other occasionally and storm out of the room in disgust. At the end of the day, we’re still family, whether we’re white, black, brown, yellow, red, Jews, Muslim, Baha’i or whatever.”
Greenebaum, 71, of Lynnwood, is the author of three books on interfaith. His latest, “One Family: Indivisible,” out this month, is a spiritual memoir about how significant events in his life led him down his spiritual path.
He was minister of Living Interfaith Church for about a decade until stepping down this summer. He wore vestments with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions, advocated for social and environmental justice, human rights and mutual respect between faiths, and invited congregations to talk about their respective religions.
Greenebaum began writing his memoir five years ago, but he felt a sense of urgency to finish it because of political strife under the Trump administration — especially the president’s stance on immigration and Muslims.
He hopes readers will be encouraged to celebrate the differences between religions, cultures and ideologies, rather than fear them.
“We are constantly being encouraged to fear each other,” he said. “I just don’t see it that way.”
Greenebaum’s brand of interfaith, which has spread as far as Australia and Great Britain, provokes reactions that range from mild confusion to incredulity, said Marie Preftes Arenz, who took over minister duties at Living Interfaith Church in July.
“It’s that feeling of all or nothing,” she said.
Arenz, 50, of Marysville, was raised Roman Catholic but now is a practicing Lutheran. Living Interfaith Church meets on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, enabling her to attend her Lutheran church Sundays.
That she goes to two churches is odd to some, but she doesn’t see it as a negative.
“I like to learn about different spiritual paths,” Arenz said. “It’s really about what makes a difference in my life. If anything, I feel like I’m a stronger Christian because of what I learn from other interfaith people.”
Greenebaum is much the same. He spent most of his career as a choral director at religious institutions, including Methodist and Unitarian churches. He earned a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Seattle University, a Jesuit institution.
“The question is not what spiritual path do you walk, it’s how do you walk your path,” Greenebaum said. “If you’re a loving human being, then your spiritual path is working for you.”
Greenebaum’s worldview was shaped early on growing up in suburban Los Angeles. He was 7 years old when he learned about the Holocaust.
The violence against innocent Jews — who were practicing his religion — seemed utterly senseless. Also during his chilhood, at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect, someone pointed out that an African-American child was different from him. That didn’t make sense, either.
A pivotal experience came in his 20s when the woman he planned to marry was killed in a crash. She was Catholic and he was Jewish, but they had made a pact never to convert each other out of respect for their faiths. It wasn’t until much later that he realized they were practicing interfaith.
Even though the loss sent Greenebaum into a tailspin for the next 30 years, the memory of their inclusiveness made a profound impact on him.
“It was brief, but it showed me our differences can be beautiful,” he said. “They don’t have to be threatening.”
Greenebaum, who never married, moved to Edmonds in 1989. He was later ordained as an interfaith minister and worked at a church in Seattle’s Ballard, but the church only spoke about interfaith in dialogue, and not as a faith.
His search for a spiritual community that didn’t judge different beliefs as right or wrong, but celebrated them, ended when he founded Living Interfaith Church in 2010.
Greenebaum explains the depths of his inclusive religion in his books “The Interfaith Alternative” (2012) and “Practical Interfaith” (2014). He realizes that interfaith can be a hard concept to grasp for some, so he keeps things simple whenever he can.
“When I introduce myself, I say my faith is interfaith, my spiritual path is Judaism and my tribe is humanity.”
By Steven Greenebaum
MSI Press. 260 pages. $19.95.
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