A year ago, a good friend of mine who happens to be a Baptist minister invited me to lunch with a prominent evangelical preacher. I hesitated at first, after hearing that preacher’s thoughts on Muslims and some of his political positions that are opposite of mine. But I decided ultimately not to turn down the opportunity to break bread with him and perhaps challenge him on some of his statements.
I arrived at the restaurant and looked around, but I couldn’t find him. Minutes later he emerged from a private room and called me by my name. He was worried about being seen in public with me. But once we got into the room and spoke, his human side came out.
I challenged him on Islamophobia and white supremacy, among other things, and he engaged authentically. He asked thoughtful questions, apologized for some of his statements and said he wanted to learn. When I proposed he either publicly apologize for some of his past statements or hold some sort of a public event that would represent a departure, he once again expressed fear. His excuse was that his community wasn’t ready, and my response was that he needed to lead them to be ready.
Sadly, this wasn’t the first time I met a faith leader fearful about being seen in public with an imam. They worry that the cost of uniting with us would be losing their own. They were are fully aware of the cautionary accounts of leaders who have actually lost members of their congregations for being too friendly to Muslims or others.
An example of a leader who has not backed down from the challenge is the Rev. Andy Stoker of First United Methodist in Dallas, an incredible friend to me and my community. Not only has he reassured us in difficult times, but he’s invited me and my community to his church for a four-week class in which we reviewed our similarities and differences regarding Jesus (peace be upon him).
Both of us were questioned by some of our congregants about the nature of the engagement, but those who came were blown away by the tranquility that surrounded us in the course of that dialogue. Rev. Stoker lost a few members of his church, but he gained many new friends from my mosque.
Two years ago, we came together to make a video, “An Imam, a Pastor, and a Dream,” hoping that our friendship would inspire others to also embark on our journey. Unfortunately, we earned the ire of IS thousands of miles away when they made a video in response, calling for my assassination and claiming that I had become an apostate from Islam by befriending a Christian. But that hasn’t stopped us from continuing our work together. Rather it has impressed upon us that our unity must be threatening to those who hate, not just here, but also abroad. And we went on to release yet another video of a conversation of what it means to love Jesus and each other.
For the past two years, the Rev. Chris Girata at Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church has convened an Abrahamic interfaith dialogue. With Rabbi David Stern last year, and Rabbi Nancy Kasten this year, the event drew approximately a thousand attendees each time with over 1 million views online. People are that thirsty to see faith leaders in authentic, loving conversation. In fact, people are that thirsty to see loving conversation period.
A polarized nation is only good for polarizing politicians. It’s tearing our country apart. It seems that people are talking to each other less in real life and more at each other online. To be accepted into a political tribe, you must uncritically accept the creed of whatever political platform the group champions. But what faith leaders can do is teach people how to unite despite actual different creeds and talk to each other about what the path forward for our country should be.
Religion is on the decline in America today, and many who have left it cite divisive rhetoric and corruption in religious institutions. Most of the religious presence in our political discourse seems to be superficial with the religious left and the religious right often simply representing nothing more than the political left and the political right with collars. But we can be so much more than that.
Faith leaders can lead the way in crafting the direly needed moral center missing in our political and social discourse. They can show people what working for the common good actually looks like. They can show people how to embrace one another despite their deepest differences, and how to move society forward in a way that encompasses those differences with harmony.
Faith leaders can teach people how to do what divisive politicians count on them not to do: talk to each other.