LYNNWOOD, Wash. — Clad in proper Pacific Northwest flannel, toting a flask of “rocket fuel” coffee typical of Starbucks’ home turf, Steven Greenebaum rolled his Prius into a middle school parking lot one Sunday morning last month. Then he set about transforming its cafeteria into a sanctuary and himself into a minister.
He donned vestments adorned with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions. He unfolded a portable bookshelf and set the Quran beside the Hebrew Bible, with both of them nearby two volumes of the “Humanist Manifesto” and the Sioux wisdom of “Black Elk Speaks.” Candles, stones, bells and flowers adorned the improvised altar.
Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan.
They had come together with about 20 other members to celebrate the end of their third year as the congregation of the Living Interfaith Church, the holy mash-up that the Rev. Greenebaum had created. Yearning for decades to find a religion that embraced all religions, and secular ethical teachings as well, he had finally followed the mantra of Seattle’s indie music scene: “DIY,” meaning “do it yourself.”
So as the service progressed, the liturgy moved from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi to the “passing of the peace” greeting that traced back to early Christianity to a Buddhist responsive reading to an African-American spiritual to a rabbinical song. In other weeks, the service has drawn from Bahai, Shinto, Sikh, Hindu and Wiccan traditions, and from various humanist sources.
If the Living Interfaith Church could appear hippie-dippy, as if scented with sage and patchouli, that impression proved deceptive. Greenebaum’s goals were serious, and they exemplified a movement in American religion toward dissolving denominational lines.
“Many of our most intractable ills may be laid on the altar of our divisions into ‘them’ and ‘us,’” Greenebaum, 65, said during his sermon. “Such a mindset allows us to judge others and find them lesser beings. Now, I’m not here to try to convince anyone that there is no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ But I am here to say that there is no ‘them.’ And there is no ‘us’ who are somehow superior to them.”
From the lectern, Greenebaum pointed to the concrete ways his congregation had put virtue into action. Members had collected 700 pounds of food for a local food bank and donated money to survivors of Hurricane Sandy. He had advocated for gay marriage. And 60,000 online visitors had clicked onto the church’s website, intrigued by its radically inclusive model.
Indeed, fully one-quarter of Americans attend worship services outside their own faiths, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center. The report attributed that trend to the growth of interfaith marriage and to the influence of Eastern religions and New Age spirituality.
Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, placed the experiment of Living Interfaith Church within the larger “idea of religion as compassion.” Its exponents, he said, include the Dalai Lama and the author Karen Armstrong. Americans can readily connect such theology to the national civic values of neighborliness and tolerance.
As for himself, Prothero expressed admiration and reservations.
“This strikes me as a kind of institutionalization of a very strong trend,” he said of Greenebaum’s startup. “It’s the idea that all religions are different paths up the mountain, and when you get to the top of the mountain you find compassion.
“But one reason we have different religions is that we have different rituals and different beliefs. Those are not insignificant. So for all religions to be one religion, you need to elide all the elements that were central to religion in the past — the hajj to Mecca, Jesus dying on the cross, whatever it might be. You’ve got to turn these first principles into last principles.”
In Greenebaum’s case, he grew up as a Reform Jew in suburban Los Angeles and does not consider that he ever left that faith. But from the time he began being exposed to other religious traditions as a member of his college choir, he found himself rejecting Judaic exceptionalism.
“I believed that God spoke to Moses,” he put it. “But I don’t believe he spoke only to Moses. So it never made sense to me to worship separately.”