The book Christian. Muslim. Friend. Twelve Paths to Real Relationship by long-term Mennonite missionary David W. Shenk recently received the Christianity Today best book award in the category of Missions/ The Global Church.
Shenk emphasizes that Christians can build relationships with Muslims that are characterized by respect, hospitality and candid dialogue and that still bear witness to the Christ-centered commitments of their faith. The book is based on 50 years of friendship with Muslims in Somalia, Kenya and the United States, from common laborers to the most senior Muslim scholars and clerics.
Mennonites and others in the Anabaptist family have remarkable relationships with neighbors of other faiths. Shenk is part of Eastern Mennonite Missions’ Christian/Muslim relations team. They cultivate Christian-Muslim relations across the globe, but also resource communities much closer to home.
Mennonite Central Committee has long placed workers in Qom, Iran. This is the center of Shiite Muslim scholarship. For years, these Mennonites were the only Christians in this city of 1 million invited to come study Islam and teach about their Christian faith.
Eastern Mennonite University has become a place of significant interfaith conversation, relationship and collaboration. The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding has trained dozens of international students from other faiths. EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement has brought Jewish and Muslim scholars to the campus to help deepen understanding of these traditions.
In local settings, Mennonites are also engaged in relationship, dialogue and witness. A congregation in Gainesville, Fla., helped organize interfaith initiatives after a fundamentalist pastor burned a Quran. In San Francisco and Philadelphia, Mennonite pastors meet regularly with Jewish rabbis and partners to study lectionary texts together, mindful of how the Bible has been used to malign and hurt Jews. A congregation in Illinois has such a close relationship with the nearby mosque that the members there helped interview the new pastor.
Among Christians, Mennonites are uniquely gifted and poised for interfaith relations. The value we have placed on relationships and presence builds trust and opens many doors. The posture of respect, listening and honesty leads to remarkable exchanges and conversation.
Perhaps most important is our commitment to Jesus and a love that reaches out to strangers and even enemies. When we encounter people of other faiths, they know we may have very different ideas, convictions and practices, some of which are deeply held. They also know we will not kill them. This is so basic that it might go unsaid. But even among Christians it should not be taken for granted. I believe it is an important reason why doors have opened for us.
Recently a small group of Mennonites met for an “interfaith roundtable.” Leaders of mission and development agencies, schools and peace groups met to share stories and experiences. We noted points of tension where further conversation is needed, especially related to questions of conversion and when and how invitation is appropriate. We sensed that, like a body, different parts play different and complementary roles. And we realized again that among Christians we have unique opportunities and possibilities for deep and meaningful interfaith engagement.
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and director of holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.