On April 16-19, Mary Ann and I attended the Third North American Baptist-Muslim Dialogue at the American Baptist Assembly at Green Lake, Wisconsin. What and why is that? A little backstory is needed.
On Oct. 13, 2007, 138 Muslim scholars and other leaders signed “A Common Word Between Us and You,” a document stating that Christians and Muslims share two great commandments — love of God and love of neighbor — and should work for peace together. They invited Christian response and conversation about this document. Leaders from the Baptist World Alliance were among those who wrote thoughtful responses.
This document also created much ferment to carry this discussion to regional and local conversations. Roy Medley, then General Secretary of American Baptists and Sayyid M. Syeed, Secretary General of the Islamic Society of North America, gathered a planning group that created the first Baptist Muslim Dialogue Event in 2009, exploring shared commitment to the commandment to love one’s neighbor. The second dialogue event was brought about in 2012 to focus on the commandment to love God.
Since both of these events were held in the east, the leaders initiated efforts to bring such a dialogue event to the Midwest and the West. Though Dr. Medley is now retired, he contributed to his legacy in this peace building mission by initiating and participating in the planning of the Third North American Baptist-Muslim Dialogue, this one focusing on building partnerships between congregation and mosque. To that end, there was an emphasis on inviting local pastors and leaders under 50 years of age, so there would be time to build these relationships. Mary Ann and I did not meet the age expectation, but we were graciously given permission to attend anyway.
I wanted to come for two reasons. One, I had chaired The Midwestern dialogue event and in doing so had formed deeply enriching interfaith friendships in the greater Kansas City community where I lived at that time. I wanted to continue that experience and meet persons who were engaged in dialogue on the national scene. Reason two was that out of my rich experiences I had written a book, Side by Side: Being Christian in a Multifaith World. I told of my journey, wrestled with hard questions in relating to people of other faiths, and offered guidance to others who might venture into enriching interfaith conversations. I went both hoping to receive something and to see if I had something to give.
My first goal of receiving enlightenment, enrichment, and rich relationships was fulfilled in so many ways. This gathering was such a striking contrast to the Islamophobic rants so prevalent in our society. Here there was open, respectful and hospitable conversation with excellent scholars and practitioners of this religion that also descends from Abraham. Islam is a religion that has a high regard for Jesus, as a prophet, in contrast to Christian beliefs, but with rich practices and ministries and many points of contact with Christians and other persons of good will. Both Islam and Christianity are religions of peace, and there is much to be gained in knowing one another and working together where we can.
One aspect of the conference was that each day, Baptists would present one of their spiritual practices (at the beginning of the day), and Muslims would present one of theirs (at the end of the day). I was asked to be a part of presenting the Baptist spiritual practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Our Muslim partners in turn presented and demonstrated their spiritual practices of ablution (washing before prayer), prayer, and fasting.
The other sessions always included a Baptist and a Muslim presenter, a moderator, and an opportunity for lively discussion involving all of us. We were reminded of the previously mentioned documents that brought us to this place in history. There was a session on all the questions Baptists or Muslims wanted to ask the other. There were discussions of socio-political barriers to interfaith efforts and one on citizen rights and religious liberty. In this regard, I was heartened to learn of the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration, where Muslim leaders addressed many issues of justice for citizens who followed a minority religion in Muslim majority nations – a vital first step toward justice and religious freedom in these countries.
We also learned of Muslim, as well as Christian, efforts in relief work with the large and tragic refugee crisis. Various religious programs work together to get help where it is needed.
One of the most joyous sessions was “Best Practices in Partnership: Learning from the Experience in Oklahoma City.” Baptist pastor Mitch Randall and Muslim Iman Imad Enchassi told of reaching out to each other and seeing beyond differences to the humanity and spiritual richness of the other. Out of this they were able to craft strong interfaith alliances and, in doing so, grow ever closer to one another. They shared support, friendship, laughter, humor, to the point where they saw themselves as “brothers of different mothers.” The depth of their relationship made all the more clear to them that both Christianity and Islam are religions of peace.
The latter part of the conference addressed making plans for bringing the knowledge and vision of this experience back home. It was here that, at least in small measure, I fulfilled my second goal in coming. There is much work that needs to done to see the goodness and humanity of persons in other faiths, and even more to build partnerships between church and mosque. I was able to offer my book as testimony and at least a little guidance as Christians consider this important and formidable journey.
We returned home tired but basking in the delight of the rich fellowship we enjoyed and pondering new insights we received. As we find our way in our new home community, there are steps we need to take to find and form the relationships here that we and others need as we seek the things that make for peace.
Rev. Dr. Richard P. Olson
Author and Retired Central Seminary Distinguished Professor