Throughout the Christmas season, we helped organize and/or participated in various interfaith dialogue events. Some of them were between women’s groups as Christians and Muslims shared the story of Jesus’ birth. In others panelists responded to specific questions regarding their faith. Read this Religious Freedom USA blog post regarding one of those events.
Following is an account by Dr. Glen Young of the interfaith dialogue journey experience by Clear Lake Baptist Church. As Young says, “God turns our missteps into expressions of His grace.”
We had the best of intentions, but we did everything wrong! We should have called them first. We should have scheduled it on another night, any other night. But God is bigger than our folly and somehow, He turns our missteps into expressions of His grace.
We live and minister in the suburbs of Houston and the demographic landscape is changing at a pace, and in ways you might not expect. Who knew that Islam was one of the fastest growing religions of our city? Who knew that Urdu, not Spanish, was the second language in one of our local schools? So we decided that we should teach our church about their Muslim neighbors, and, ever the promoters, we decided that a simulcast on September 11th would be a great way to do it.
My associate pastor received a phone call from the Imam of the local masque. They were concerned. As it turns out they knew as little about us as we knew about them. Everything they thought they knew about Baptist came from news reports of Fred Phelps and the Westborough Baptist Church. If I did not want Fred Phelps defining my faith I should probably allow them the courtesy of defining their own faith to me. So we scheduled a lunch appointment.
We had a wonderful meal together. I was forthright with the Imam. I told him that my faith required me to share the best news of my life with everyone. I told him, that out of love, I wanted to tell everyone, including Muslims about the truth that had changed my life. I told him that an interfaith dialogue that did not honestly address the real difference we had would not do proper honor to either faith. We talked at length about the moral code that our two faiths shared in the midst of an increasingly coarse society. We could not change the date, or content of the event that had already been planned and promoted but I invited the Imam to come as my guest. I left hoping that he might show up.
Then something amazing happened! I could not have planned it and I did not expect it. The night of the event came, and so did the Imam, alone with 50 members of his masque. They sat, interspersed among our congregation and respectfully listened to the telecast. Three Christians, one a converted Muslim explained the religion of Islam. They listened as the gospel message was clearly spelled out in contrast to their own faith. The presentation was fair, but not always flattering. At one point about half of the Muslims in our chapel got up and quietly walked out. As it turns out, it was their evening call to prayer. A few minutes later they all returned to hear the end of the presentation.
We sat together and watched the presentation for two hours. At the end, you could cut the atmosphere of anticipation with a knife. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I do remember apologizing to our Muslim guest if we had offended them in any way. I said that if our gestures had been awkward, please know that they were sincere. I asked the Imam present if the telecast had misrepresented his faith in any way. In two minutes he respectfully corrected a few statements from the telecast.
After a two hour presentation there was no time to take questions. I suggested that after we dismissed, people should meet one another. I suggested that they ask the questions that were on their mind to each other individually, and they did! For the next hour our chapel was abuzz with Muslims and Christians meeting, introducing families, asking hard questions, and exchanging phone numbers. All of a sudden, my church members, instead of being spectators in an interfaith dialogue were participants. Instead of watching professional ministers explain their philosophy, they were sharing their own testimony. “Muslim” was no longer an exotic religion; it was the person they were talking to.
Since September we have had multiple meals and conversations with multiple Muslim friends. We had another dialogue event, and again, as soon as the professionals exited the stage, the audience spent 45 minutes talking to one another about their faith.
I am told by the experts that this is not the way you conduct an interfaith dialogue. A few of my church members tell me that they are afraid; of sharing their faith with another person I suppose. But they are good natured about the whole thing and willing to be stretched so that truth might be proclaimed. My new Muslim friends are asking some very interesting questions about Jesus in our private conversations. They are intrigued by the concept of grace.
I expect our church to be invited to a Ramadan feast later this year. One of the leaders of the masque has suggested that we host an event for them at Easter to explain the significance of the resurrection. I don’t know what will happen next, that would imply far too much credit on my part. This is God’s plan, not my own. I do know that God is in the habit of turning our fumbling, bumbling, awkward efforts and plans into works of amazing grace, and it is a wonderful thing to behold.