Photo: Waleed Jassim (center), vice president of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center Board presents a portrait he painted of the First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana building. FMC lead pastor, Janet Elaine Guthrie, is on the far right. He presented the painting to the congregation on Peace Sunday, followed by a celebration and fellowship time over tea. Photo provided.
In recent weeks, following attacks in Paris and a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., the United States has seen a proliferation of anti-Muslim sentiments voiced by politicians, college presidents and other leaders. To counteract these voices, many Mennonites are joining efforts to build bridges between Muslims and Christians and are calling others to similar action.
First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, Ill., has been nurturing a relationship with its Muslim neighbors for over 15 years. The relationship started by sharing a parking lot. First Mennonite Church is located a half block from the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center. When CIMIC found itself in need of overflow parking, FMC made its parking lot available to the mosque for its Friday prayer service, and the relationship grew from there.
The connection between the two houses of worship is so important that mosque leaders asked to be included in the process of selecting FMC’s new pastor during its last search. When Janet Elaine Guthrie, FMC’s current lead pastor, came for her in-person interview, mosque leaders took her out to lunch.
“They sort of interviewed her,” said Earl Kellogg, FMC member and a member of the search committee, via phone on Dec. 11. “They asked about her perspectives on interfaith relationships, women in ministry and more. It was just a delightful interview. At the end, one of the leaders leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Hire her.’ They were excited about her hire and celebrated her coming.”
The two communities have collaborated on projects, including a peace garden that provides food for a
local food bank. Earlier this year, after a Muslim student was killed in a shooting in North Carolina, FMC members presented a handmade card to the Islamic Center mourning this act of violence. The card included the words, “Love the whole of humanity.” This statement became the theme for a seminar presented by Kellogg and other church members at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City and a display that FMC shared at the Mennonite World Conference Assembly Gathered in Harrisburg, Pa., last summer.
CIMIC has also found ways to reach out to its local community, to help provide education about Islam. Each month, members host a lecture that is open to the public and focused on some element of the Islamic faith. This month’s talk was focused on “Muslim-Americans in the age of [Donald] Trump.” They also host mosque open houses and welcome people to join them for their Friday prayer services.
“We want people to know that when we have questions, we must reach out to the other rather than relying on television news,” said Mehmoodur Rasheed, CIMIC board president.
Waleed Jassim, vice president of the mosque, recently painted a portrait of the FMC church building that he presented to the congregation on Peace Sunday, followed by a celebration and fellowship time over tea.
“We are so happy and so proud of the relationship between us and the Mennonites,” said Jassim, in a Dec. 13 phone call. “They really make us not feel alone in this world with their kindness and with their concern.”
In fact, Jassim has been so struck by the ways FMC members put their faith into action that he recently referred a Christian friend to the congregation.
“A lady that we respect very much was talking about how much she was dissatisfied with going to any church and how she didn’t feel comfortable with their setups and values,” Jassim says. “I said I think I have the right church for you—the Mennonite church—and I gave her some of the literature and pamphlets for the church.”
And now, as anti-Muslim sentiments abound in the media, the two communities are collaborating, along with Sinai Temple, a Jewish community, to plan an interfaith day camp for elementary and middle school children for next summer. Modeled off a similar camp begun in Harrisonburg, Va., the communities hope the peace camp will help build religious tolerance and knowledge as well as friendship.
“What these recent developments have highlighted for us is that our plans take on even greater weight in times like these,” said Guthrie, via phone on Dec. 11. “We are working together to nurture the young generation. We want to involve parents and families so that we can stand together in a commitment to work for peace.”
Kellogg agrees. “This notion of being able to understand each other in a more in-depth way has long term implications and a potentially global effect. God calls us to be involved with people in positive, loving ways. We’ve got to have ways to have a common understanding so we can work on really tough issues together in a more productive way and be able to speak out against this kind of fear of the other that seems to be escalating again in the USA. To me that’s a wonderful mission.”
Other groups reach out
In South Bend, Ind., members of Kern Road Mennonite Fellowship reached out to the Islamic Society of Michiana. On Dec. 11, 20 members of the congregation, including representatives from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., attended a Friday prayer service and toured the mosque.
“My hope was simply to show our support by being there and listening,” said Vic Myers, who initiated the visit. “I think it’s always a good thing to see others in a direct face-to-face way and to search out what we share in common and to learn to appreciate that and maybe even discuss theological differences, but also just to listen.”
After reading anti-Muslim statements in the press following the Paris bombings, Myers stood up during Sunday morning sharing time and invited members of Kern Road to join him in prayer. The idea to visit the mosque grew out of this, as well as an invitation from a member of the mosque whom Myers met at a gathering for people concerned about environmental justice. Myers believes this visit may open the door to future engagement between the two communities.
“I would certainly encourage other congregations to do this sort of thing,” says Myers. “I think it’s just incumbent upon us to get to know these people, if for no other reason than to get a different view of what might come through in the popular media or on TV or through what politicians are saying.”
Other Mennonite organizations have also issued calls for tolerance. On Dec. 3, the day after the San Bernardino shootings, Christian Peacemaker Teams invited individuals to share messages of support and care for Muslims on Facebook.
The post said, “Dear Muslim friends, family and colleagues in the U.S., Because of the still unfolding #SanBernardino mass shooting, we know this week may be difficult for you. People may make connections between your faith and culture that they did not make when Robert Dear, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, Dylan Roof, Adam Lanza or many other white mass shooters gunned down innocent civilians. … We invite our Facebook followers to leave encouraging comments for our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
By Dec. 5, the post had reached more than 280,000 people, been liked by 3,400 people and shared by 1,900 people.
Leaders from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Eastern Mennonite University and Mennonite Central Committee U.S. have also issued calls for tolerance and active peacemaking efforts in the face of extremism and violent rhetoric.
Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, has also joined the voices calling for Mennonites to counter anti-Muslim sentiments.
“At a time when fears are being exploited for political gain, it’s important for Mennonites to proclaim our love and support for our Muslim neighbors, both at home and abroad,” says Stutzman. “It is patently unfair and deeply disrespectful to label them all as terrorist suspects, just as we resent being labeled as Christian crusaders. I commend efforts by Mennonites to pursue relationships of peace and understanding with Muslims near and far, giving clear witness of our call to be disciples of Jesus Christ.”