Let peace begin with me: United Methodist and Muslim relations
In the wake of the January 2015 attacks by terrorists in Paris and a massacre by Boko Haram in Nigeria, many are wondering what the relationship between Christians and Muslims is supposed to look like. The Rev. Dennis Perry found himself and the congregation of Aldersgate United Methodist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, in the middle of a national news story about this relationship several years ago
A neighboring Muslim congregation was being displaced from their mosque during renovations. Due to scheduling glitches, the construction was beginning around the same time as Ramadan. The imam of the mosque contacted Aldersgate UMC asking if his congregation could meet in Aldersgate’s all-purpose room on Fridays for prayer during this sacred season.
Perry said, “Sure.” That’s when all kinds of… let’s call it… excitement broke loose. Word got out about his decision, and the two congregations sharing space became a hot topic. Everyone it seemed, including reporters for Fox News and “The Daily Show,” debated whether the pastor had made the right call in welcoming their Muslim neighbors to worship in a Christian church building.
While there was not a lot of interaction between the Sunday United Methodist worshipers and the Muslim congregation that used the all-purpose room on Fridays, the attention both groups received created an opportunity for dialogue.
During two sessions in which the congregations shared lunch, United Methodists heard answers to questions like, “What is it like to be a Muslim in our community?” Some eyes were opened when they heard stories of people whispering behind their neighbors’ backs things like, “You’re a terrorist.”
Perry said the lunchtime conversations allowed each congregation to see the other as “plain, peaceful people.” One teenage Muslim girl shared at one of the gatherings how “it had never occurred to her mind that a Christian could be a friend.”
Which points to a larger problem. “Along with our high level of trust within our own tribe, comes a level of mistrust of other tribes,” Perry said. “If a murder was committed by a United Methodist, no one would say, ‘Well, they were Methodist,’ and make an assumption about our faith.”
But when it comes to the other tribe, we see “evidence” of our assumptions, good or bad, in the acts of a small, less-than-representative group.
The solution moving forward is not in simply pretending our differences do not exist. “That is a lie,” Perry said, “We are not all the same.”
Perry pointed to the international gathering of leaders marching in solidarity in Paris following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo as a “rising of interest in coming together for peace, while recognizing our differences.”
Let’s begin today
The world is becoming ever more connected. News travels fast and no action is solely local. Perry knows this firsthand, as his local church’s decision quickly became national news in the U.S.
Maybe though, the church can capitalize on our global connectedness. If stories of hatred and division can spread, so can stories of love and peace.
Let us begin living and sharing stories of coming together in peace and for peace like that of Aldersgate United Methodist Church’s year-long journey with their Muslim neighbors. There a teenage Muslim girl learned that she could have Christian friends. There, through dialogue, United Methodists and Muslims learned that they are each “plain, peaceful people.”
John Wesley challenged the people called Methodist to “do no harm” in word or deed to those who are different from us. The Bible invites us to live into God’s mission of reconciling the world (2 Corinthians 5:19).
In the words of a song many of us sang in church during Christmas, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” (The United Methodist Hymnal 431).
*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615.312.3733.
Questions for reflection:
- When you read about two different faiths sharing space, what do you celebrate? What makes you uneasy?
- When a conflict occurs between people of faith, what is your first reaction?
- When John Wesley wrote his “General Rules” he included under “Do no harm” avoiding participation in some societal ills of his day, like slaveholding and trading, and illegally buying or selling goods without paying the duty. What might he include today?
- The Bible tells us we are to share in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). How does that apply to people of other faiths?
- Jesus taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” How can you be a peacemaker?