Last Friday members of the church where I serve (Central Christian, Springfield, Ohio) were graciously invited to attend a service at Masjid Al Madina, a mosque in my city, one that I have probably driven past at least a 1,000 times.
Each time I previously drove past the mosque, in the recesses of my mind, I thought, “They are in their world, I am in mine, and we have nothing in common.” It never crossed my mind that the mosque would be a place where friendships could form.
I had no idea what to expect. Inaccurate stereotypes had led me to believe that Muslims were reserved, distrustful, unfriendly, and completely uninterested in my Christian faith. To my shame, I believed that these stereotypes to be true…until last Friday.
Prior to the events leading up to last Friday, I did know a single Muslim with whom I could have a cup of coffee or tea, and share a good story. In fact, I had never had a casual conversation with a person of Muslim faith. Never.
All of that changed dramatically for me over the last three days.
On Friday about 50 people from my church, male & female, young & old were warmly welcomed to Al Madina Mosque for a Friday afternoon prayer service designed to help educate non-Muslims about their faith. Imam Yunus, his wife Zarina and so many others (too many to many to name) extended a warm welcome, in fact it was one of the warmest and most gracious welcomes I have ever received. They invited us back for dinner that night.
Instead of being reserved, they exuberantly welcomed us with open arms. Instead of being distrustful, they went out of their way to answer any question that we had, even hard ones about things like jihad and Sharia law. The Imam told self deprecating jokes to put us at ease. They asked honest, deep questions about my Christian faith and I realized that in many cases my faith was as mysterious to them as there’s was to me. We discovered areas of commonality, and we talked candidly of deep and significant differences. It was perhaps the most natural and easy conversation about my faith that I have ever had with people who embraced a faith other than my own.
Yunus pointed out verses in the Quran that talk about the Muslim duty to protect the Christians and Jews who live in their midst (The article that is linked above is from the Jewish Post). These verses come from the Ashtiname of Muhammad, a covenant signed by the Prophet Mohammed to protect Christians and Jews until the end of time. When Imam Yunus addressed members of his own congregation he have historical examples of times when Christians extended hospitality and protection to Muslims.
On Sunday, morning our pews began to fill with Muslim guests as 30-50 visitors form the two mosques in town entered our sanctuary. I joked that we had our all time record in Muslim guests that morning, which we would have had if one or two had come.
Since they revere Jesus as a great prophet, and since I look to him as my Lord and savior we found common ground in his teaching about greeting the stranger, loving our neighbors, and binding each others wounds in the manner of the Good Samaritan (sermon audio included below). I looked up from my sermon notes to gauge the response of the audience to the message and saw tears in the eyes of both guests and members of my own congregation. At the end of the sermon, Muslims and Christians embraced one another in new bonds of friendship. People didn’t seem to want to leave. Politically conservative members of my congregation commented on the beauty of what had just happened. Social justice-minded members were anxious to capture the momentum and make sure that this was not a one time event.
Later that night the Imam and I moderated a panel discussion. Our members wanted to understand the meaning of jihad and Sharia. Their members asked about the trinity and differences between Christian denominations. We asked what they thought about Jesus and they asked what we thought of the Prophet Muhammed. I stumbled in my response and had to admit that I know very little about the Prophet Muhammed and what he taught.
On Tuesday morning, as I reflect on what happened I’d like to share a few preliminary thoughts.
God is doing something amazing among Christians and Muslims in Springfield. We could not have planned, or even imagined the events that unfolded over the last three days. While some in the community have been addressing these issues for years, there was no long planning period in advance between our two congregations. Outside forces pushed along and created a sense of urgency. I feel a sense that whatever is happening, it is bigger than us and God is behind it. (The story of what is happening here will be featured in a documentary to be aired by CBS nationally on June 25.)
I was overwhelmed by the strong sense of human connection. The events did not feel like an awkward mingling of strangers who were working hard at being polite and finding things to talk about. It felt like a reunion of longtime friends. There was an eagerness on both sides to connect and to love one another. We realized that the depth of what we had in common helped bridge the gap of our differences.
I gained an understanding of painful it is to have one’s faith misrepresented. A common concern expressed among Christians and Americans in general is, “Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism.” One young Muslim students named Heraa Hashmi, in response to questions like this from her classmates, developed a 712 page spreadsheet listing links to Muslim condemnations of terrorism. Here’s a press release from the largest and most comprehensive Muslim organization in America. If you scroll through a historical record of the press statements, starting with one strongly condemning anti-Semitism, you will see scores of official statements condemning terror. A comparison that has been helpful (but painful) is to imagine what it would be like if the world thought that all Christians endorsed the the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist organization that claims to be Christian and which uses scripture to defend its despicable practices. The ratio of KKK members claiming to be Christians is 3 times higher (1:35,000) than the ratio of Muslims involved in international acts of terror 1:114,000).
We realized that strong friendships can form even when beliefs differ. Prior to the event, Yunus and I talked about the importance of not compromising or ignoring our theological differences. There are deep and significant differences in how Christians understand Mohammed, and how Muslims understand Jesus. My understanding is that faith in Christ alone is the means for salvation. Their understanding is that the Prophet Mohammed was the final prophet, and that his words provide the final word on pleasing God. We will continue to explore these issues together as we wrestle with what it means to enter into a relationship with God and to live in a manner that honors Him. While the differences in our respective faiths are profound and important, it is my sense that we are both seeking relationship with the same God, the God of Abraham, Moses, and Noah.
Someday, I’ll have more to say about the journey that we (Christian and Muslims in Springfield) have embarked on together.
But today it’s Tuesday morning, I’m amazed at what God is doing, and never again will I be able to say that I don’t have a single Muslim friend.
Dedicated to Dr. Akbar Mohammed, one of my many new Muslim friends, who is a model of grace and kindness to all.