Heidi Neumark to discuss religious plurality, work in youth shelters


James Buckser
Staff writer

To the Rev. Heidi Neumark, the topic of religious pluralism is complicated.

“It seems like a positive thing, a plurality of religious expression. I think the theme of the week has it in relation to democracy, and I completely agree with that,” Neumark said. “The conflict about it is how far does variety of religious, diversity of religious expression go?”

Neumark, the author of Sanctuary: Being Christian in the Wake of Trump, will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy as a part of Week Eight of the Interfaith Lecture Series and its theme, “Freedom of Religious Expression.” 

Her views on religious pluralism, to be addressed in her talk, “The Hope and Limits of Religious Pluralism: Notes from a Church Basement,” are partly informed by her own experiences.

“In my case, in the church basement, … we have a shelter for homeless queer youth and young adults, all of whom are basically rejected from their families for religious reasons,” Neumark said. “There’s the difficulty of being all inclusive of different religious perspectives if some religious perspectives are causing harm to others.”

Neumark said her work in the youth shelter would be used as a concrete example in her talk.

“It’s also religious pluralism that makes it possible, people of all different faiths and no faith who contribute, and who make it possible to do the work that we do there,” Neumark said. “Then it’s also the reason we have to do the work, … because of other religious beliefs.”

When it comes to religious pluralism, Neumark said, people usually think of a wide range of faith traditions, such as Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but “there’s also variety, in this case, within Christianity itself.”

“(There are) Christians that would say I’m not a Christian because I don’t condemn these young people. I would say, well, I question that they’re Christian,” Neumark said. “Where are the limits, and how do you work with that?”

Neumark preached as a faith leader for 40 years in New York City, first at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, then at Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan, before retiring this summer. She is also the author of three books, including 2015’s Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith, which she wrote after discovering that her father was Jewish, having come from Germany in 1938.

“I knew him as a Lutheran, but he came from a family of German Jews,” Neumark said. “When he came here, my grandparents were deported, my grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp, and for me that relates a lot to issues we’re dealing with in the shelter ­— of dehumanizing people and demonizing people and then making it easier for violence to happen.”

While Neumark said she had always been a “pretty outspoken preacher,” the discovery of her family history affected her preaching, making her feel it was a “matter of life and death.”

“The church where my father was baptized — I think for reasons of assimilation — they had a Nazi bishop who literally preached from the pulpit about killing Jews,” Neumark said. “I would say preaching murdered my grandfather.”

Neumark sees the effect that preaching has had on the youth in her shelter.

“A lot of the families that kick out the young people that end up in our shelter, they’ve gotten their ideas from preaching,” Neumark said. “The preaching isn’t telling them to go kill their children, but it’s telling them that their children are evil, and that’s a dangerous path.”

Neumark hopes that people leave her talk with “hope for the importance of working with others,” and the importance of taking a stand.

“Sometimes in churches it could be, ‘Well, we don’t really want to offend anybody so we can’t take a strong side.’ But the young people in our shelter are at risk of death,” Neumark said. “I think it’s important to be open and be in conversation, but I hope people also realize that it’s equally important not to be neutral.”


The author James Buckser

James Buckser is a rising junior at Boston University studying journalism. At BU he works with The Daily Free Press and WTBU News, among other campus publications. He is very excited to be reporting on the Interfaith Lecture Series during his first season at Chautauqua, and for the opportunity to interview a wide array of interesting voices. While currently residing in New England, James grew up in Upstate New York, and is looking forward to returning. Outside of reporting, James enjoys going on poorly-planned runs and playing the guitar badly.