Engaging Islam: One Episcopal parish’s experience

Over the past months, I have fielded many questions from parishioners about Islam. Concerned about terrorism and religious violence, the persecution of Christians by ISIL, many wondered whether violence was intrinsic to the religion. As Islamophobia increased in the US, inflamed by the presidential campaign and in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, people were eager to talk about their concerns and learn more about Islam.

I was reluctant to offer formal sessions on Islam for several reasons. My academic and scholarly commitments as scholar of religious studies made me wary of the venue of a congregational adult forum rather than a college classroom. I fretted that anything we did on Sunday morning would lack the scholarly rigor to which I was committed.As a scholar, I was interested primarily in religion as practiced and lived, rather than the ideal or the doctrinal. I struggled with internal conflict over my roles as pastor/priest and scholar of religion. I was also worried that given our typical practices, a multi-week program would see an ever-shifting audience.  Finally, I was more interested in talking with than talking about Islam. A successful program, I was convinced would draw on Muslim voices to share their faith and their lived experience of being Muslim in the US. In spite of the fact that I’ve been in Madison for nearly seven years, I have almost no contact with local Muslims. Where might we find Muslims willing to share their lives and their faith with us?

Nonetheless, I moved forward with plans for a four-part series, with the help of Deacon Carol Smith, who is largely responsible for programming our adult formation. We laid out four sessions, drawing on expertise from the congregation and the wider community. Professor Anna Gade of UW Madison joined us for the first session. She’s an expert on the global reach of the Qur’an and introduced us to some of what she sees as keys to understanding its significance. The second session was divided between a period of follow-up questions from the previous week as well as other questions people had and a short introduction to Islamic law, offered by a parishioner who is a retired law professor and had taught Islamic law in the context of comparative law classes.

In our third session, we addressed the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Although the Wheaton College controversy had stimulated the original question, this was an opportunity to think more broadly about the relationship between Christianity and Islam and to think about some of the issues in interreligious and interfaith dialogue. As background for this session, I provided a short piece by Bruce McCormack of Princeton Theological Seminary. Written in the middle of the Wheaton College controversy, McCormack lays out what he takes to be the best arguments for and against the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Perhaps even better, and more thorough, is the work of Miroslav Volf, who has written in a variety of contexts about Islam and Allah. His recent book: Allah: A Christian Response, is especially useful.

Finally, this past Sunday we were joined by Ibrahim Doumbya, a Muslim from Senegal in West Africa, who has lived in Madison for many years. He shared stories of his life as a Muslim in Madison, the struggles to find space and time to practice his religion, and the implications of being Muslim in a nation that is not majority Muslim.

Overall, the series was a huge success. Attendance was higher over the four weeks than for almost any other program we’ve offered over the years. People who attended our 8:00 service returned for the presentations at 11:30. Most of those who attended came back each week and are eager to learn more. We may have follow-up sessions on topics such as religious violence.

What I’ve learned, what I might do differently, and what advice I might have for other clergy and lay leaders attempting to offer a similar program.

Most importantly perhaps, to let go of fear, anxiety, and scholarly prejudices (That’s a lesson I have to re-learn regularly in my ministry). At Grace, there is deep interest in learning more about people of other faiths, willingness to engage systematically and over time, and a sensitivity to the questions raised by Islamophobia and inter-religious dialogue.

Secondly, there are resources in the community and at hand. Reach out to other clergy and ecumenical groups in the community if you lack personal contacts. I remembered after our planning was well underway that the Madison State Journal did a brief series of interviews with Madison-area Muslims in December, 2015. It would have been easy to connect with some of those Muslims through the newspaper and invited some of them to be our guests as well. It is likely that in most other cities of Madison’s size and larger connecting with Muslims is relatively easy. Local colleges and universities will have faculty who teach World Religions, and even if they are unable to participate, they will likely have contacts in local religious communities.

The Harvard Pluralism Project has been mapping world religions in the US for nearly twenty years. It will have information about religious communities in cities and states across America as well as many resources on interreligious conflict and cooperation. I also remembered late in the game that already when I was teaching World Religions, resources for exploring Islam on the internet were readily available. We could have played audio files of Qur’an recitation for example which as Professor Gade reminded us is one of the most important ways Muslims encounter and experience the Qur’an. The Qur’an Explorer is one such site. There are also many videos available, such as the episode on the Hajj from Bruce Feiler’s Sacred Journeys series that aired on PBS several years ago.

I didn’t look for curricula designed for congregations. Late last year, the Wisconsin Council of Churches distributed a study guide that had been prepared by Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota. No doubt there are many others.

We live in a time of heightened prejudice and fear. As people of faith and religious leaders, it is our responsibility to help create a civil society, to welcome strangers and foreigners, and to build bridges across religious divides.

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