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In the height of white America’s fear of Muslim people’s background and faith, the white congregation I served in northwest Washington leaned into learning about and experiencing life with our Muslim neighbors.
We knew so little.
We knew that anyone of Muslim faith, or name, or appearance, was being chastised on airwaves.
The U.S. was scared of ‘them’, and we seemed to be being taught daily to increase our fear.
At Edmonds Lutheran Church (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has the distinction of being the ‘whitest denomination’ in the country!) we also knew that this type of behavior is not represented in the Bible, which is our foundational document.
Nor is fear and injustice God’s Way for the world.
So, we tried to do something different.
It helped that our office administrator was married to a Palestinian; she had local connections and great insight.
We hosted a series of gatherings to meet one another.
The Church hosted a lecture series, with discussion, and question and answer sessions with a variety of Muslim speakers.
And then starting inviting the community.
And people came.
Not just church members, but also people from a Jewish congregation, other Christian groups, and non-church-going neighbors.
One young mom said, “I don’t go to church, but if I did, this kind of thing is what I think the church should be doing.”
People from a variety of Muslim organizations also came.
Actually, the police came too.
In fact we asked them to.
As a heads up, we notified the local police of what we were doing.
There had been ‘trouble’ when organizations hosted “Muslim events”.
The leaders and organizers held training sessions on how to handle disruptions or problems with participants or people attempting to disrupt the event.
All this pre-work and worry wasn’t needed.
Perhaps having a police car and uniformed officer sitting in the parking lot made a difference.
Hopefully, this was totally unnecessary.
We don’t really know.
What we know is that the four-week series opened the eyes and hearts of all of the people who filed into the sanctuary for these evening events.
We held these during the month of Ramadan – and of course, we had to teach just what that is and what it means.
We had sessions on women’s roles, the history, the conflicts, the misrepresentations, the facts, etc. of as many things Islamic as possible.
These were powerful gatherings that bound people together in new ways.
One Islamic woman came because she said she needed to feel safe.
She wasn’t one of the presenters and didn’t need the educational content of the lectures, but she was generally afraid to be out in the world we all were living in, as an Islamic woman.
She felt drawn to sit in a Christian Church that was willing to learn about her faith and life, and she felt safe.
It is so great to be in the company of a group of people who are willing to listen, not have all the answers, and learn from others who are different.
These lectures were capped off by a shared ‘breaking-the-fast’, full-fledged Mediterranean feast at sunset.
Sunset is an important time during Ramadan.
The faithful fast all day, every day during Ramadan, until the sun sets.
In the Pacific Northwest sometimes the sun does not set until around 9:30 p.m.
People are pretty hungry by then!
The Church served a gorgeous Iftar* with all the trimmings – dates, rose water, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, chicken in spiced rice, dumplings in yogurt, etc. etc.
It was an amazing feast!
The fast is broken at the time of the call of prayer for the evening prayer.
After prayer, we sat at round tables, which was important and delightful.
With round tables, everyone can easily see and hear each other.
At the table of eight where I sat the first year we discovered we had people from five nations!
Syrians, Norwegians, Americans, Bosnians and Palestinians – eating, talking and laughing together.
God is good.
The people eating together soon discovered they had many connections and interests.
One woman owns a Middle Eastern restaurant.
She soon signed up to make (amazing) soup for the church’s weekly Community Meal.
The church staff later held a special staff meeting and meal at her restaurant.
Other Muslim families who learned about this same Community Meal the church provides for hungry and homeless neighbors came back to volunteer – parents and children together.
Some of the families recognized each other from their children’s school events.
The Bosnian group invited the Lutheran Church to their annual summer barbecue.
The connections list grew, and the series continued for multiple years.
After a couple of years of developing relationships, the evening prayer session occurred in a corner of the sanctuary.
This felt like a true development of trust and respect.
When another horrific attack on a Muslim community occurred, the local Muslims asked the Church if this could become a place to gather again.
Not to learn and eat this time, but to grieve and to pray for reconciliation and peace.
This was another extremely powerful experience for all.
Islam and Christianity share the goals and virtues of peace, harmony and joy.
May we continue to learn and grow together as the children of God.
*(An Iftar is the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset)
Julie M. Josund, DMin. is a pastor, organizer and coach with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) roots. Bowen Family Systems Theory is her ‘go-to’ approach for relationships and professional leadership. JMJ Coaching and Consultation. #JMJosund. firstname.lastname@example.org.