I heard a helpful sermon this week – not at my church, and not by me. It was given by Imam Yahya Islam at Friday prayers at Masjid An Nur in Columbus. Several vestry members and friends of St. Thomas, along with some staff members at Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbus, attended with me.
St. Thomas and Masjid An Nur have a long history of friendship. Here are three ways the two congregations have worked together over the years (long before I came to Columbus):
- In the shock and fear following 9/11, St. Thomas, members of the Muslim community, and members of the Jewish community worked together in 2002 to build a Habitat house and build our relationship.
- For years, St. Thomas children and families met our Muslim neighbors through TAP – the Thompson-Pound Art Program (TAP). TAP is an interfaith arts camp sponsored by Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministry that brings together children and youth from diverse backgrounds. They learn about the cultures and religions of our community, create a community art project, and seek peace together.
- Last year around this time, St. Thomas hosted an interfaith lunch series on the topic of hope. Rabbi Beth Schwartz (Jewish), the Rev. Matthew Grunfeld (Episcopalian), and Imam Plemon T. El-Amin (Muslim) spoke about the meaning of hope in their religious traditions. Representatives from several Muslim congregations in Columbus joined us for this series.
We’ve been friends for a long time, so last week, some folks from St. Thomas and I decided to go visit our friends.
I was inspired to ask for this visit by a conversation a week earlier with the son of a parishioner. He grew up in Columbus, served in the military, and has lived in Kuwait for the past twelve years as a civilian, helping companies do business in the Middle East. He has lots of Muslim neighbors and feels entirely safe in his community. We talked about the current situation in our world – the fear and helplessness we all feel in the face of terrorism, the reality that the large majority of Muslims are peaceful people but a few do seek to do us harm, the sad legacy of the Crusades and other errors in Christian history, diplomatic and political mistakes in the Middle East, the challenge of public safety, concerns about rhetoric and media that inflame an already tense situation. But even after naming these challenges, he said (as best I can remember) “I have to believe that America is better than this. We stand for freedom and democracy and openness. We believe in treating all people equally. We want others to see this way of life and want it for themselves. We can’t give up on these values out of fear.”
And in that conversation I found myself saying something I’ve said to myself and aloud many times. The reason I do what I do is because I truly believe the way of Jesus is the best hope for our world. The way of Jesus is the way of self-giving love for God and neighbor that welcomes strangers and loves enemies and never gives up. Eventually, through that love, God makes all things new. Our work in the church is training and practice for loving like Jesus for the transformation of the world.
So with the support of our senior and junior warden, I contacted Farhad Alifarhani, a friend of this congregation, and asked if some folks from St. Thomas might visit sometime, just to affirm our friendship.
They immediately invited us for their regular Friday prayers at 1:30. The space is fairly small, so there is room for only a few guests at a time. About 12 Episcopalians and 30 or so folks from the mosque (masjid) were there. The imam spoke for about 30 minutes. The service concluded with their traditional prayers, which take about 5 minutes. We stayed for a bit of conversation after the service.
We were there to observe and learn. We followed their customs – most of us sat on the floor, and women wore scarves on our heads (which in our case included the rector, senior warden, and junior warden). We did not participate in their prayers, but we remained quiet and prayed in our own way.
The imam’s sermon, mostly for our benefit, focused on common misunderstandings of Islam. He defined Islam as “a way of Life that Allah has perfected for us. When we submit our will to his will, then and only then will we find peace with ourselves.” He said the true understanding of jihad was not about war with others but about the holy struggle against one’s own ego to submit oneself to God. He said Islam teaches that all human beings are connected through Adam and Eve – we are all brothers and sisters. There is no superiority among people, no differences due to human pigmentation or flesh. We are all one.
He also asked, “What is the Islamic response to those who reject Islam in the 21st century? The best response to that question is what ALLAH has said in the Quran: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion.'” He said the Quran recognizes that there will be differences in belief and no one should be forced to convert or choose a particular path.
He closed by stating his dream and vision as a Muslim. “My vision is seeing all faith communities coming together for establishing God’s rule on earth for decency, peace and fairness in the world.” Then he very kindly referred to his guests and said, “As we look around today we see that vision has come true.”
A professor of world religions once gave me some helpful advice. He said, “It is not fair to compare the worst examples of other religious traditions with the best examples of our own.” There are plenty of bad examples of Islam out there, as well as bad examples of Christianity. There are good examples as well. Our Muslim friends in Columbus are a gift to this community. I am glad they are here and grateful they are willing to be friends with us.