Teaching at European seminaries in September, David W. Shenk said conversations everywhere were about how to respond to the continent’s refugee crisis.
Shenk, a member of Eastern Mennonite Missions’ Christian Muslim Relations Team, taught for three weeks at seminaries in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. All of the classes included learning about Muslims, and two had lively encounters with Islam.
“The courses were so timely and so relevant to what is happening with hundreds of thousands of refugees coming into Europe,” Shenk said. “The interest among the students, many of whom were leaders, pastors or studying to become pastors, was phenomenal.”
While Shenk was there, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Germany will welcome a million refugees this year.
Europe is simply overwhelmed,” Shenk said. “The U.N. has run out of money for food, and they are cutting rations while more people are coming. Jordan is coping with 5 million refugees; Lebanon is not far behind that number. Everywhere I went, the conversation centered around ‘What do we do?’ ‘How do we respond?’”
Bernhard Ott, academic dean of the European School of Culture and Theology, arranged Shenk’s lectures both in Korntal, Germany, and Bienenberg, Switzerland.
Balancing the scales
At the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Shenk presented a one-week course, “The Church in Dynamic Engagement with Muslims.” Shenk co-taught the course with a teacher whose roots run deep in African Islam.
“My co-teacher knew both the Qu’ran and Bible thoroughly and brought fresh insights to the students,” Shenk said. “Students were very interested in learning how to cultivate peaceful relations in a very tumultuous world.
“They were intrigued by the enormous energy that Muslims put into balancing the scales concerning good and bad deeds but even so didn’t have assurance that they were ‘part of the fold.’”
Most members of the class had never been to a Muslim place of worship, so the seminary arranged for the class to spend an afternoon in a local mosque, where they had good conversations with Muslim leaders.
“All want to go back for further conversation,” Shenk said. “We share the deep conviction that we must learn to talk to our neighbors. With another million coming to Germany, people must become acquainted with the Muslims in their midst.”
Openings to bear witness
In Amsterdam, Shenk taught a course at Tyndale Theological Seminary, arranged by Philip A. Gottschalk, an EMM worker and chair of the division of theological and historical studies. The topic was once again about the church having a lively encounter with the world of Islam.
“Seminary leadership decided to invite two Muslim theologians to participate in the classes for the first time in their history,” Shenk said. “It was the first time for many of the Christians to have a forum to interact with Islam.
“I think many were surprised at what they were hearing. There were free-flowing questions, challenges and open doors to bear witness. Stereotypes were broken down, and each side got a hearing. . . .
“The very first step in developing relationships is to talk to each other respectfully. We can listen and learn but not sacrifice our stand for Christ.”
Gottschalk said Shenk’s tone “is always conciliatory, and he encouraged us to share the gospel plainly. He gave the class both theoretical knowledge and practical steps how to apply it.”
What about terrorists?
At Bienenberg Theological Seminary in Switzerland, Shenk taught a weeklong class on Christian Faith and Religions. Islam was of particular interest to the students.
Shenk attended a Swiss Mennonite church and was impressed to see adults and children collecting food and supplies to send to Syria.
“The salt of Christian compassion runs deep within European culture,” Shenk said. “Germany has done very well in welcoming refugees. I think the world can see that the roots of this compassion is the Christian faith. My modest word to the churches was to jump in with both feet when it comes to the refugees. If the government is showing compassion, how much more should the church.”
Many students asked, “What about suspected terrorists who might come in with the flow of refugees?”
Shenk said it is tough to deal with that possibility.
“We want to be generous; it is good for governments to be cautious and wise,” he said. “But we must not let our caution overwhelm our commitment to compassion.”
Two other members of EMM’s Christian Muslim Relations Team, Jonathan Bornman and Andres Prins, planned to be in Germany Nov. 1-19 to offer resources to churches about how to welcome Muslim refugees.