Reaching out to the Islamic community

Leaders of two Florida Conference churches with a history of welcoming members of the Islamic faith say getting to know people of other faiths can be an eye-opening, Christian experience.

Both Trinity UMC, Gainesville, and St. Luke’s UMC, Orlando, have reached out to communities of faith different from their own. In some cases, it can be as simple as inviting them to a worship service or church social event. In others, it can mean pitching in with people of different beliefs on a project to better the community.

From left, young man named Berik, Muharrem and Ozlem Ayar at a table

Muharrem and Ozlem Ayar of Gainesville, right, and their friend Berik, a PhD student at the University of Florida, enjoy an outing with members of Trinity UMC. 2013 photo from Terry Baxter, Trinity UMC.

Lessons from those encounters carry special meaning in the wake of last year’s tragic violence in Paris and San Bernardino, California, say those experienced in interfaith outreach.

“We have a foundation of understanding because we know these people,” said Lynette Fields, missions director at St. Luke’s. Worshipers from the Orlando area church  participate each year in activities intended to facilitate understanding and friendship. 

“But if you’re someone who lives miles and miles from any sort of moderate masjid [or mosque], and have never personally met a person who happens to be a Muslim, then it might be more natural to be on edge and listen to how rhetoric feeds fear,” Fields said.

Rev. Dan Johnson, senior pastor at Trinity, has led the way through fear before. His church drew attention in 2010 by publicly opposing the high-profile comments of a local nondenominational pastor who advocated burning the Quran.

Back then, Trinity hosted interfaith gatherings for peace, understanding and hope. Later, Johnson and some church members also undertook an educational interfaith trip to Turkey.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks in France and California, Johnson used social media to express his personal feelings of friendship with some people of the Islamic faith, then made good on his word by inviting personal friends of his and some other congregants to join the Dec. 13 worship service. 

He posted a picture of his friends, Muharrem and Ozlem Ayar, both local physicians in Gainesville who are originally from Pakistan. Then he sent out an email to his congregation of 2,500, mentioning that he probably would invite some Muslim friends to church, but he gave no definite plan or date.

“The atmosphere when they were introduced by congregant Terry Baxter was electric. … I was so proud of them [the congregation]. The whole congregation broke into applause and welcome,” Johnson said.  “They did not know about this day’s visit, and yet they were very positive.”

Johnson didn’t preach a formal sermon centered on his Muslim friends. Rather, he introduced them and simply said he had invited them to be in church together.

A crowd from St. Luke's listens to imams at the Orlando Islamic Center
A crowd of visitors from St. Luke's UMC listens to Imam Abdul Rahman Sykes discuss beliefs and traditions of Islam during the church's fifth annual field trip in 2015. Photo used with permission from Islamic Center of Orlando.

“My idea is that with all the rhetoric and hysteria, if a person doesn’t know any Muslims, they could be caught up in the negativity. … What we’re trying to do is show that a) we won’t be motivated by fear and b) as followers of Jesus, we don’t cave in to fear.”

In the heart of Florida, St. Luke’s UMC is located on an interfaith highway that is home to a Buddhist temple, a Jewish temple, a Catholic church, a mosque (called a masjid by Muslims), a Mormon tabernacle and other Protestant churches.

“These houses of worship have been here a long time, and because of the diversity of the nearby communities, it seems natural to get to know people of other faiths,” said  Fields at St. Luke’s.  

The church first became involved with the local Muslim population back in 2008-09. Churchgoers have participated in a steady back-and-forth effort to get to know their Muslim neighbors and vice versa. Confirmation classes made up of seventh- to 12th-graders have visited the local masjid, and St. Luke’s has held four-week classes on the Muslim religion led by a local imam, or Muslim prayer leader. Fields said about 75 people attended those, and she feels the church definitely will hold another class as recent events call for more understanding.

The entire local community, including members of St. Luke’s, has been invited each year to attend the Ramadan holiday at the local masjid for the Iftar celebration meal,  when Muslims end their daily fast.

“They do an open Iftar and have invited us for about six or seven years. Sometimes 15 of our people go, but we have had as many as 25 to 30 attend.  Now they have about 100 to 125 extra people from all faiths coming. And their hospitality is amazing,” she said.

Imam Zaid Shakir greets visitors from St. Luke's UMC, Orlando, during their visit to the Islamic Center
Imam Zaid Shakir, left, chats with visitors from St. Luke's UMC during a church field trip to the Islamic Center of Orlando. Photo used with permission from the Islamic Center.

Getting to know local Muslims has also involved doing volunteer work alongside one another. Fields said that groups from the local masjid have joined in with St. Luke’s and others in local interfaith efforts to reach out to schools and work on Habitat for Humanity housing construction.

Fields serves on the executive committee for the nonprofit Interfaith Council of Central Florida, which has hosted the community winter barbecue and avoided menu items with pork, which Muslims do not eat. The council will continue to work on events and programs that can deepen understanding and offset fears, Fields said.  

Johnson is a member of a similar nonprofit organization, the Gainesville Interfaith Forum, in Trinity’s community. He said the group plans to meet early in 2016 and discuss planning some events intended to help local people connect with members of other faiths.

“For me, reaching out to other faiths strengthened my own feelings, my own thinking about what would Jesus do. The Great Commission can only come from living into the Great Commandment,” the pastor said.

He and Fields said interfaith outreach can be beneficial for United Methodist congregations, particularly in today’s atmosphere of suspicion and fear.

“Getting to know people from other faith backgrounds gives you firsthand personal information rather than relying solely on what the news or social media says about particular groups of people,” Fields said.

“It gets rid of some of the unknowns and fears that come from those unknowns. While it may be counterintuitive, I truly believe that understanding someone else’s faith journey and background can actually strengthen your own faith by helping you know at a deeper level why you believe what you believe.”

– Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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