I received an email a couple weeks ago from the pastor of the church I used to attend, and it was such a beautiful thing that I couldn’t not share it here.
Firstly, he wanted to check up on me, to see how I was doing in these troubling political times. He was also asking after me on behalf of all of my old church members, who have had me on their minds lately. He just wanted to make sure I was OK, and let me know that I was in their thoughts.
This in and of itself was such a lovely email, that it would’ve been sufficient to brighten my day, but then he shared a story with me:
A few nights before (on the night of the awful shooting in Quebec, coincidentally), my old church had hosted a pot-luck dinner for the Muslim community a couple of towns over. The Muslims brought the main dishes to ensure halal meat, etc., and the church members brought the soft drinks, tea, sweets, and desserts.
The Muslims got a tour of the church, and at the time for isha prayer, the imam’s son called the athaan for all of the church members to hear.
He sent me some pictures from the event, and it actually brought tears to my eyes to see all of my Muslim brothers and sisters sitting and eating together in the very hall and with the very people I had grown up with. That my former church was taking these kinds of steps towards love and understanding in a small town and in such troubled times, really brought a smile to my very heart.
And this isn’t the first time either.
About a year ago, this same pastor got in touch with me while I was living in London for my master’s degree; he was starting an introductory class on Islam at the church, in order to dispel many incorrect prejudices and fight small-town xenophobia, and he wanted to know if I would be available to answer people’s questions about real life as a Muslim, as they came up.
Of course I was!
The class went through the basics of Islam, five pillars, daily prayers, fasting, the whole works. But people’s questions for me were so much more sophisticated than the usual, are you oppressed? “beginner’s” type of thing.
The pastor continued to send me questions on a weekly basis, and the church members, who knew me from back in the day, were so glad to have such an honest perspective on Islam, from someone they know and trust.
And my old church’s budding relationship with Islam did not stop there.
As the class drew to a close, the pastor began to tell me about how interested he would be in doing some more interfaith work, and specifically taking the church members that had attended the class to see an actual mosque and meet real Muslims (besides myself).
I recommended a mosque that I knew about in Sacramento, since I had attended it and found the people to be decent, and the women’s section to be as proper as women’s sections go. He and the other church pastor got in contact with the imam, and they, with a small tester group of church men, went to meet the imam and sit in on a Friday prayer.
While they enjoyed this experience, they actually ended up forming a more lasting relationship with a smaller masjid a bit closer to my hometown, where they both attended open days at each other’s place of worship and kept in contact, until this dinner came about.
This story really reminds me of how important interfaith work is in these times, and I can’t even tell you how proud I am that this is taking place first and foremost in my hometown.
And I know, interfaith work and event have their fair share of “critics,” to put it politely.
But honestly, let’s look at this with some perspective.
Yes, the Qur’an says not to take someone other than a believer as a “friend.” That does not mean “don’t be friendly to anyone other than a Muslim.” Yes, your close friends should be good, righteous believers; the people that you surround yourself with do have a huge impact on your own faith and behaviour. But to be friendly to a non-Muslim is not only not haram, but it is encouraged. How else are you planning to show someone the best of Islam, unless you are nice to them?
Also, in times like these, beggars can’t be choosers. We want solidarity, but then we want it on our terms. Oh, you want to host a dinner for us to show your love for your neighbors? Well then you have to come to our mosque, and make sure your women are covered, and please try to get the biryani right.
Nope, not how it works. Maybe it is less than ideal to be hanging out in a church (or technically in the dining hall area in the same building as a sanctuary for Christian worship), or even getting a tour of a church from Christians. I know some are going to tell me it is haram to go anywhere near a church or even look at one….But really, if you are not there with the intention of worship I think there is room for some leniency. As long as you aren’t hanging out in the pews having a good look at all the stained glass images and statues hanging around, and you are there for education and peace-making (not, say, hymns and communion), I should hope that it wouldn’t cause some giant faith crisis for you.
The last thing people often argue about where it comes to interfaith work is that we shouldn’t attend events that involve participating in anything that Christians or Jews do.
I remember going to an event in my local area in Santa Cruz called the Tent of Abraham a little bit after I converted, held in a Jewish synagogue and open to people of one of the three major monotheistic faiths. It was basically an event to get to talk to people of other faiths, where they had ice-breaker types of activities followed by a big kosher lunch for everyone to share together.
In the beginning though, they decided that during the intro some hymn singing would be a good idea. They respectfully kept any mention of Jesus out of the Christian one they sang, they explained the Hebrew of the Jewish one, and they included an Arabic nasheed for us.
I felt a little weird about the situation, but as everybody began singing along to everyone else’s nasheed and hymns, I came to realise something: if you want people to respect you, you have to be willing to extend the same respect to them.
I think we have this issue as a community, of never coming out of our cultural/religious cliques, and then wondering why the rest of the country (in the U.S. at least) thinks we are some monolithic enigma of a cult.
The only way to let people get to know you, and through you, Islam, is to participate in the everyday life that goes on around you. We need to come out of our mosques and closed off communities and start to talk to people, and to show them that we are willing to extend the same respect and inclusivity that we are asking everyone else to give to us.
When the Jewish temple gets graffiti-d we need to be ready to support them, just like the beautiful stories we hear in the news of Christians coming together to help Muslims rebuild their mosque after a devastating fire.
Which is why I was so, so happy to hear of the beautiful relationship that is growing between my old community and my new community, right in my hometown. And I can’t wait to get back there to be a part of the work, inshaAllah.