Congregation Hosts Interfaith Conversation
“There is something about being a junior at a Catholic college that makes you more Muslim,” Ali Ahmed recently quipped to a packed fellowship hall at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Ahmed, who at the tine was a senior at Xavier University and president of the university’s Muslim Students Association (MSA), shared his personal faith story with 90 members of Northminster who had assembled to get to know their neighbors better. The Northminster group heard about faith journeys from four Muslim students and a Muslim faculty member from Xavier. The interfaith event was the result of two organizations seeking to respond to God’s call to love one’s neighbor.
At a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric was high because of the Paris bombings, Xavier’s MSA was in the midst of coordinating an interfaith fund-raiser to benefit the care of Syrian refugees through Doctors Without Borders. This included collaborating with a Catholic organization and a Protestant group on campus, with raised funds matched by the university president, a Jesuit priest.
Students gathered for a community dinner, to educate each other and to celebrate that they raised over $3500. Later in the same week, Ahmed and the MSA vice president, Tamara Mahmoud, appeared on the local news, telling a different story and challenging the hateful rhetoric they heard.
In the same season, Northminster was hearing a similar call from God. Meeting their neighbor Sheryl Rajbhandari, the congregation learned about her organization, Heartfelt Tidbits, and its work with integrating refugees over the long term, often in neighborhoods surrounding the church.
The congregation collected welcome supplies for refugee families. Members of the congregation gathered to meet their neighbors and to hear their stories over dessert. Northminster began to fill in as a host site for language classes and formed a group of congregational leaders to pursue continued relationships.
While the two MSA and Northminster groups were working at peacemaking, the national conversation about refugees in the public square only seemed to get more divisive. As each community became aware of the other’s efforts, the idea of an interfaith conversation took hold in both groups.
One Sunday morning, Nancy Ross-Zimmerman, Northminster’s interim head of staff, met the Xavier students as they pulled up to the church. She gave a quick primer on what they would experience in worship since some had never been to a Christian service. She then settled them in the sanctuary for worship.
Anas Malik—a Xavier political science professor and faithful attendee of the on-campus Muslim Friday prayer service—slid into a pew with his wife and two daughters. A Xavier alumna who lived in the church’s neighborhood sat in the back with a large container of hummus her dad made to be shared at the congregational lunch.
The fellowship hall filled quickly after worship. Ahmed and others told their stories and answered questions as a panel. “The respect for one another was striking,” says Laurie Laning, Northminster’s missions director.
Interfaith conversations can be a challenge, says Jeff Holmes, worship director for Northminster. Do we focus on relationships and similarities or do we dive into the differences?
“I learned that people who practice Islam believe that they are called to be shaped into humble and merciful people,” Holmes says. “Their faith clearly brings meaning and purpose to their lives, much in the same way that my faith does.”
After the formal discussion, congregants swarmed around the students to continue conversation. Many asked for further resources to read and to help them understand better.
Mahmoud, who will be the MSA president in the fall, hopes the impact of the event will reach beyond the congregation.
“The acceptance that we received from everyone at Northminster was humbling, amazing, fun—words can’t describe!” she says. “It is this acceptance and these opportunities that work to make the world a better place.”
Abby King-Kaiser, Assistant Director at the Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Most powerful creator and gracious God, be our guide. Inspire us to build unity and trust. Teach us to live as you would have us live. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.