Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Iman Means Faith

This is the answer I gave to our Board of Ordained Ministry about an experience with peace with justice ministries I've had as a pastor. I wanted to write about my experience of Islam to counter the hate-speech that seems to be acceptable today, but, without the time during Advent, I thought I would recycle this:

A group of women from a church were sitting in a restaurant during Advent, and talking about how Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' mother, has been represented across cultures, including an Arabic representation. Mary is revered in some Muslim communities and is mentioned more in the Qu'ran than she is in the Bible. Except in the middle of this conversation,  one of the women said, “Well, if that's true, then it's too bad they [Muslims] all are still so violent.” 

Comments like this, willfully ignorant, incorrect, and even hateful, about Islam are too common in our churches. I have served congregations in Harford County, a largely white county, overwhelmingly Christian, and also woefully illiterate on other faiths. Some Christians do not see why such illiteracy is a problem, but the reality is that illiteracy breeds violence and intolerance. In his book on Christian identity in a multi-faith world, Brian McLaren writes, “Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our identities strong--- and whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific, or religious.”1 If I wanted to interrupt the hostility, I would need to engage in peace and justice ministries that fostered interfaith relationships.

My own faith became stronger through my friendship with Muslims who I met through a mission trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004 (and have returned to visit at least eight times). I have always felt called to interfaith youth work, believing in the South African concept of ubuntu, that we become who we are through relationship with others. I never expected to be about to do interfaith work in homogenous Harford County, but when preparing to teach confirmation, I sought non-Christian congregations to visit, and somehow came into contact with Tasniya Sultana, an organizer for Project Iman, a Muslim Girls youth group. We met, had a great time, and began to plan ways for our youth to get together.

The first year, we met twice, starting by meeting with Project Iman during Ramadan. Their group was much bigger than our own, particularly because only my girls in youth group were invited the first time. I also ended up bringing a few younger girls with my youth (whose pictures ended up in the paper).2 Some of the youth went to the same school! We began with a craft where we learned to write our names in Arabic and talked about our favorite holidays. We shared stories, explaining in very basic terms how we walk in the footsteps of many of the same giants of faith, Abraham who they call Ibrahim, or Jesus who they call Isa, for instance. They spoke of Ramadan and the sacrifice of Ishmael (Isaac in the Bible). When our craft was finished, we stood up and got in a circle for a game. One of the leaders of Project Iman read a series of statements and we were supposed to take steps into the circle if the statement was true for us. She deftly included theological and scriptural statements along with statements about our families and favorite foods. And then they prayed. We sat at the tables in our own attitude of prayer while they prayed before breaking their fast. The girls from Presbury were quiet. I didn't see suspicion or self-righteousness or anything our culture teaches us about how Christians should see Muslims; instead, I only saw wonder and openness.

The second time we met was at Presbury. We ate together and painted birdhouses as a craft to go with the scripture I shared, Luke 12:22-29, about how we should not worry for God is with us. Then I had questions about how our faith teaches us to deal with worry and fear. One of the leaders from Project Iman said she loved the scripture! But the most powerful experience of the night was when we moved to the sanctuary and shared about our worship experiences. I told the kids they could ask each other whatever they wanted, but I also asked them questions. It was fascinating to see what kinds of questions they had for us, how they noticed the colors in the sanctuary and asked about their meaning, as well as to see how excited they were when I asked them to tell me about how they worship. It was a safe space where the Muslim girls were asked questions not to put them on the defensive but just out of wonder. And we as Christians were able to model Christ's hospitality.

Rev. Emily Scott, a Lutheran pastor of a dinner church called St. Lydia's in New York, said recently: “Sometimes you are seated next to someone so different, that you don't know how to start a conversation. And then something happens. In that moment, heaven and earth overlap, and God builds a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be.”3 The interfaith relationships between Project Iman and Presbury are fostering those moments where God builds a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be, a world of peace and justice where Muslims and Christians are more interested in eating, laughing, and sharing together than fighting or using hostility to shore up our identities. Our plans for this ministry are to expand it to all our youth, as there is now a Muslim youth group for boys that Project Iman works with, and to have not just dialogue together, but to work together for justice too. For Ramadan in 2016, we are planning a 30 Hour Famine-type event to raise money and awareness about world hunger. We want to continue to create that overlap between heaven and earth, that glimpse of earth as it should be, in our little corner of Harford County.

1Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), 63

2See Nimra Nadeem, “Muslim, Christian girls join for interfaith iftar,” The Baltimore Sun, 28 July 2014, accessed 14 July 2015, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/harford/fallston-joppa/ph-ag-comm-interfaith-muslim-christian-20140728-story.html.

3Emily Scott, from a talk at the ELCA's national youth gathering posted by Nadia Boltz-Weber on Facebook, 18 July 2015, https://scontent-iad3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xft1/v/t1.0-9/11752340_859677020806230_5199339091003344713_n.jpg?oh=0222e446a363352940c43655630e7477&oe=56155FCB.

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