I've been asked to share with you about my choice of this year's ASM topic, Interfaith Friendship as Incarnational Mission Practice. Although I've been teaching mission history and practice for over 20 years now at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, my interest in interfaith relationships is a more recent development. It stems from witnessing a growing number of Muslim families moving into Dubuque when IBM opened an office here about eight years ago. I realized I knew so little about this second largest and fastest growing world religion, and my students were asking me questions. So, as any good professor can tell you, I decided to teach a class on Islam so I could learn something about it! I've told that story in a University of Dubuque publication of the Wendt Character Initiative, Character and...Courageous Compassion (Vol. 2/2016) or http://digitalud.dbq.edu/ojs/character. This is how it began. . .
"I was to teach a seminary class on Christianity and Islam and knew so little of the latter. A friend had introduced me to the local imam, Dr. Adib Kassas, a Syrian psychiatrist in town so I gave him a call. Could my friend and I have coffee with him some afternoon this week to talk about lecturing in my class? He laughed. "I'd be glad to, but it will have to be after dark," he said. "It's the last week of Ramadan." I was embarrassed. I had made the first of many religious faux-paus: I had not even realized that this was, indeed, the height of one of the most revered Muslim holy days, and one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Fortunately, Adib took my ignorance in stride and simply invited me and my friends to dinner with the Muslim community of Dubuque on Saturday, for Eid al-Fitr, the festival celebrating the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan.
"Thus, on that Saturday, September 11, 2010, nine years to the day after the Twin Towers fell, when a fanatic Baptist preacher was burning Qur'ans in Florida, and to the consternation of my family members who knew only of TV images of rampaging Muslim fanatics, I headed out to a Muslim home in rural Illinois. Welcomed by our host, a retired Syrian engineer and his family, my friends and I feasted on dates, nuts, palak gosht and many other succulent if unidentifiable dishes, in conversation with Muslims from around the world located in the Tri-state area. So began an incredible journey of discovery and shared companionship across religious and cultural boundaries, a journey that spawned a new community of Christian, Muslim and Jewish families engaged in dialogue, hospitality and friendship: the Children of Abraham" (pp. 63, 64).
In the years since that initial encounter with local Muslims and Jews (there has been a synagogue in Dubuque since the 1920s that now houses a Reform congregation), I have not only learned far more than ever expected about both of these faiths, but made such significant friendships within both communities that I cannot imagine my life would be complete without them. My own faith has deepened as I have seen God's grace extended to me through unanticipated avenues: a seven year Qur'an study with the Imam and friends, multiple opportunities to engage with members of all three faiths in monthly conversations and local service projects over these years, and simply spending untold hours celebrating birthdays, holidays and life together in each other's homes.
This has had such an impact on me that it has taken my teaching in a whole new direction. I now challenge - invite - students to begin to build bridges of friendship and engage their own congregations in interfaith relationships in their own communities. I have begun to see the fruit of such efforts as students cross religious boundaries and share their interfaith encounters. Their joy, their questions, their faith deepens. As they live out their faith among others who see God differently, they become more rooted in Christ. The opportunity to be voices of peace and brokers of "another way" with those of other faiths in a climate of hatred and distrust, bear testimony to the Psalmist's claim: "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!" (Ps. 133:1)
Interfaith friendships not only contribute to "peace on earth," but better fit us for the kingdom of God! Practicing and accepting hospitality opens us to "the other" and the work of God in every human heart. It is also God's love, brought home to us in Jesus Christ and by whose grace and mercy we draw strength to love and serve one another, which leads us to fruitful and faithful relationships. I look forward to being together this summer at ASM to explore further the role of interfaith friendships in God's purposes!