An Experience of Catholic-Muslim Friendship Building
Since joining the staff of St. Paul the Apostle parish in Los Angeles, I’ve thought about finding a way that we as a Catholic community could make a connection with our Muslim neighbors. My sense of urgency about this increased when I read in the newspapers about the resistance to the building of an Islamic Center near “Ground Zero” in Manhattan, and the burning of the Qur’an by a Christian sect in Florida. It seemed as though so many reactions to Muslim communities in the United States were based on fear and mis-information. I was aware that there were Muslims living in Los Angeles but that neither I nor other St. Paul’s parishioners had much opportunity to talk with or get to know any of them.
My thoughts about this remained on the back burner until I became aware of a Los Angeles association called the “Christian-Muslim Consultative group.” The Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Imam Jihad Turk, the Director of Religious Affairs for the Islamic Center of Southern California, had developed a project called “Standing Together” to foster Christian Muslim Dialogue.
I contacted Imam Jihad Turk and learned that the project had taken form in 2008 and its purposes were:
1. To bring Muslim and Christian neighbors together to come to know one another as people.
2. To create opportunities for faithful Muslims and Christians to engage with one another about beliefs and practices.
3. To lay the foundation for possible future projects that could be done cooperatively with Christian and Muslim communities.
I also learned that to date an Episcopalian Church and a Seventh Day Adventist Church had participated in this project with members of the Islamic Center. We would be the first Catholic community to be involved with it.
Imam Turk put me in touch with Cesar Dominguez, a member of the Islamic Center community who was interested in participating in this dialogue. I met with Cesar and we took responsibility to be co-facilitators for the project. Our goal was to invite 10-12 members from each of our communities to participate. Cesar and I met in early January of this year and set Tuesday, March 1, as our beginning date.
Since this was a first-time experience for St. Paul’s, I invited parishioners who I thought would have the ability to talk about their Catholic faith and would be open to the possibility of learning from the Muslim participants. My fear was that it would be difficult to find even 10 interested people, but to my surprise everyone I asked was delighted to be invited and eager to participate. We ended up with a full compliment of 12 from each community. I asked the St. Paul’s parishioners to commit, as much as possible, to be present for all the sessions.
Goals and Content
My own personal goals for this experience were that we would:
1. Gain some accurate information about Islam.
2. Begin to build new friendships.
We had the advantage of working with a workbook that had been developed for “Standing Together.” The goal was to meet for seven sessions. We met every other Tuesday evening from 7 to 9 pm. Half the meetings took place at the Islamic Center on Vermont Avenue, the other half at St. Paul’s.
The sessions covered the following topics:
Session I: Getting to Know Each Other.
Session II: Core Beliefs of Christianity and Islam.
Session III: Foundational Practices of Christianity and Islam.
Session IV: Faith in Practice: Prayer and Ritual.
Session V: Intersection of Faith and Culture.
Session VI: Life Transitions and Rites of Passage.
Session VII: The Journey So Far: The Journey Ahead (Evaluation and Follow-up).
The format for each session included some written material (most valuable: a glossary of terms common to Christianity and Islam) and a DVD presentation. The DVD presentations varied in length from 10 to 45 minutes. They also varied in quality and usefulness. Most effective was a description of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land experienced by Deborah Neal of the Episcopalian church and of the Hajj described by Milia Islam-Majeed. Each of these young women gave powerful testimony to the way in which these journeys had been life-transforming.
Perhaps the least effective for our purposes was the DVD on “Core Beliefs.” It was longer than necessary and the presentation on Christian beliefs was significantly different from the way Catholics would express their core beliefs. Fortunately the Catholic members of our group were effective at articulating their own understanding of Catholic beliefs and practices.
The most valuable part of the sessions, in my judgment, was the opportunity the participants had to talk with one another. There was a genuine eagerness to share and learn about one another. Despite the challenges of L.A. rush hour traffic (which necessitated some flexibility regarding arrival times), commitment to attending the sessions remained high. Some participants had to miss one or two sessions due to other commitments.
Group Dynamics and Positive Developments
As the weeks went on, Cesar and I learned to use the outline for each session as a starting point but to “go with the flow” if a discussion or activity seemed to carry energy. For Session III, participants came prepared to share their favorite passages from the Bible and the Qur’an. This sharing lasted way beyond the time we’d allotted for it, but it was such a meaningful occasion no one wanted to end it prematurely.
One of the unexpected pleasures was the degree of ethnic diversity of the Muslim participants. They had come to the United States from Egypt, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Mexico, and Afghanistan, as well as some born and raised in the United States. When we discussed, for example, the women’s wearing of the hijab (headcovering), we were able to get a flavor for the way this custom is interpreted differently by Muslims of different cultures. In turn our Muslim participants were interested in our use of sacred music during worship, since this is not a part of their own practice.
Since our meetings took place after sundown, we paused each evening so that the Muslims could pray Salah, their formal prayers. For the Catholic participants, our experience of this was a high point. Not only did we have an opportunity to learn how Muslims pray, but the sincerity and whole heartedness with which our new friends entered into their prayer caused us to reflect on the importance of our own traditions of prayer.
St. Paul’s hosted the last of our sessions, which began with a potluck dinner. Everyone contributed a special food. At the end of the potluck we took time to evaluate the project. There was a real interest in continuing the relationships we’d begun to forge. Cesar extended an invitation to our St. Paul’s participants to attend an end-of-the-fast meal during Ramadan in August, and in turn we invited our new friends to be guests at St. Paul’s “Festival of Readings and Carols” which is always a high point of our Christmas season. Although our last session officially ended at 9 pm folks seemed reluctant to leave and some stayed until 10:30.
Our seventh and last session took place on May 24 and I continue to hear positive comments from the St. Paul’s parishioners who participated. My own goals for this project were certainly met. All of us learned something we didn’t know about one another’s beliefs and practices, and I sense that individual friendships begun during these meetings may continue and grow. At the same time, I see this as very much a beginning point in the journey of mutual understanding. Those who participated were the ones in each community most inclined to interfaith dialogue. We were no doubt hearing the perspectives of the most open members of our respective traditions.
Moreover, in an experience of seven weeks only a few topics can be covered, and none in detail. We tried to focus on the basics, and while more controversial or contentious issues were sometimes touched upon, we did not spend the bulk of our time on them. As with most beginning friendships, we gravitated towards and delighted in what we held in common and what we could affirm in one another’s values and practices.
So my sense is that our participation in “Standing Together” was a good first step. We need to find ways to take the second and third steps toward fostering a continued relationship. The enthusiasm with which all participated in this dialogue has confirmed my belief that the Catholic/Muslim dialogue is a venture whose time has come.
Should you or your parish be interested in ordering the workbook for the Standing Together sessions or viewing a sample lesson, you can do so at the website of the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group of Southern California.
Joe Scott, CSP, serves as associate pastor at St Paul the Apostle parish in Westwood, Los Angeles, CA.