Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Interfaith Opportunities

This past Sunday afternoon there was an excellent documentary, Different Books, Common Word, which aired on our local ABC station that probably went unnoticed by many. I was alerted by a friend that it would be airing at 3:00 pm. The newspaper TV log had it listed as “Paid Program,” so I think it is unfortunate that it didn’t get better publicity. I learned from an online review that the documentary was produced by EthicsDaily.com in Nashville.

The documentary heralds the positive interactions and cooperation between Baptists and Muslims in such places as Oklahoma City, Memphis, Lake Charles, LA, Columbia, TN, and Orange, TX. We learn through some of the dialogue in the film that certain Baptist leaders were motivated to speak out and reach out to counter the inflammatory, derogatory remarks about Islam made by some other prominent Baptist leaders. They wanted people to know that Jerry Falwell and his ilk did not represent all Baptists.

Different Books, Common Word is an important documentary for two reasons. One, it shows individual Baptists and Muslims coming to know and appreciate one another, finding a common humanity while acknowledging differences. Two, it is a lesson and an image that many of us in the United States, especially in the South, need to hear. We need to cool down the dogmatic, inflammatory rhetoric and get to know our Muslim neighbors.

Local Opportunities

There are opportunities for all of us to do some bridge building between faiths. Our local Islamic Center for several years has extended an offering for dialogue with the community during the sacred month of Ramadan. Each year during Ramadan, which is a time of fasting from sunup to sundown, the Islamic community has invited non-Muslims to come join them for prayers and a meal. It is a time when they can explain their faith to their neighbors who may have limited knowledge (or misinformation) about Islam.

Last year I took them up on the invitation and joined them at the local mosque one night during Ramadan. I believe that we must find ways of living together, because none of us – Christians, Muslims, Jews, or anyone else for that matter – none of us is going to go away. We are all here on the planet, and we owe it to ourselves and our future to learn to live in harmony.

When I arrived at the mosque in the Rosedale community of Homewood, Ala., it was not dark yet, so things had not gotten underway. There were children running around – some tossing a ball. Men were talking on the steps while women in the kitchen busily preparing the evening meal. It reminded me of sights I had seen years before while working and travelling in Southeast Asia, but it also looked a lot like what I had experienced growing up as a Baptist in the rural South.

A couple of gentlemen came up to welcome me. They told me that Abdullah would be there shortly. Abdullah was the one in charge of talking to visitors about the faith. While we were there waiting for things to begin, an older man from India was explaining to me that Islam is the only religion that tells you everything you need to know in life “It even tells you how to go to the bathroom and how to have sex with your wife – what other religion does that?” Then the old man led me to a room where water, soup, and dates were offered as the first breaking of the fast before evening prayers.

Abdullah arrived shortly before the first prayers began. He was a young man of dark complexion, but not as dark as the Indian man I had spoken with. He spoke perfect English and looked like he probably had some African heritage. Abdullah lead me into the mosque where a man stood at a microphone and began leading prayers. After a period of time, he made a few announcements that had to do with general housekeeping procedures (so, they have those announcements during worship too, I thought to myself). Then the man announced some certificate awards to people who had successfully memorized and recited books of the Qur’an. He took delight in pointing out that the one who was best at recitation was a woman.

Finding Common Ground

After the first evening prayers, we all went to partake of the feast that had been prepared. It was then that I had opportunity to talk with Abdullah. He escorted me to the dining area. We sat down to eat and he began to explain to me some of the customs of Islam. At one point in our conversation he asked me about my faith.

“I’m Catholic,” I told him, “but I wasn’t always Catholic. I grew up Baptist.”

“Well,” Abdullah replied, “I grew up Baptist as well.” Abdullah was a hometown boy! And a former Baptist at that!

We laughed a bit about the fact that we both grew up Baptist and converted to another religious expression. You just naturally celebrate whatever commonality you find, and Baptist just happened to be one of our commonalities.

I haven’t seen Abdullah since then, but I’m hoping to continue dialogue with our Muslim neighbors in the city. Just last month, a local imam came to do a presentation on Islam at the hospital where I work. It was an in-service for us health professionals to learn how to better provide for our Muslim patients. I got his name and contact information. Perhaps that will be another opportunity for dialogue and cooperation.


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