By John Elford
April 22, 2016
Years ago when I served a different congregation in another city, I attended an Iftar banquet as a guest of the local Islamic Center. Iftars are the evening meals when Muslims break their Ramadan fast. We sat with the community in evening prayers and then feasted on incredible dishes and enjoyed conversation and laughter that showcased the grace and hospitality of our hosts.
The next day, I wrote a letter to the editor about the event, encouraging folks to get to know their Muslim neighbors and see beyond anti-Muslim rhetoric that seems to fill the air we breathe.
The morning the letter was published in the paper, I was at a breakfast meeting and I was taken to task by someone at the meeting for “cozying up to the enemy.” After the breakfast, someone complimented me on how poised I was under attack. Truth be told, I was so stunned, I didn’t know what to say.
During the last two decades, our perceptions of other faiths and of folks who are different from us have been shaped by hateful rhetoric, prejudice and misinformation. I wonder how different the world might be if our view of Islam was formed by genuine encounters with our Muslim neighbours. How might our world be transformed if our world-views were shaped by learning from other religions how to be better practitioners of our own faith?
In 1991, Siraj Wahaj, an imam from Brooklyn gave the first-ever invocation in the U.S. House of Representatives. In his prayer, he quoted a verse from the Quran: “Do you not know, O people, that I have made you into tribes and nations that you may know each other?” His prayer was a clarion call that our differences need not be ammunition for conflict, but are be a built-in diversity designed to move us toward our neighbours to enrich our lives.
In each community where I’ve pastored, I’ve taken time not only to befriend other pastors, but also to visit practitioners of other faiths. I remember one of my first visits to an Islamic centre where I sat with a half dozen Muslim men in the imam’s office and we began to ask each other questions.
We laughed uproariously when they asked me why we don’t pray all that often — they were pleased to find that we do — and when I asked them how in the world they make it through Ramadan in the summer — they rely on the community and on shared meals in the evening.
Over time, I’ve learned that God is giving me Muslim friends so that I might rediscover the joy of hospitality, the grace of friendship and a deeper devotion to God. In other words, my Muslim friends are teaching me to be a better Christian.
Our doing good together in Austin, however, depends not simply on practicing our own faith well, but also appreciating and supporting people of all faiths. In times when anti-Muslim rhetoric raises its ugly head, it’s crucial for all of us to stand together with our Muslim friends.
One way several communities of faith are doing this is through “The Banner Project.” About 20 congregations around Austin will soon be displaying banners that say, “We Stand with Our Muslim Neighbours.” The project will kick off with a press conference on 2 p.m. Thursday at University United Methodist Church, 2409 Guadalupe St. You’re welcome to join us in this project as we rediscover the joy of working together for good in God’s holy name.
The Rev. John Elford is senior pastor at University United Methodist Church.