How do you begin conversations with parishioners and neighbors at home whose minds seemed closed by negative stereotypes of Islam?
We Baptists wondered this aloud as we left the third national Baptist-Muslim Dialogue in Green Lake, Wisconsin.
We spoke at length about confronting Islamophobia in our churches and communities.
Does this mean correcting Uncle John at the Thanksgiving table? Sometimes. What about writing a letter to the editor of our local newspaper or our state representative? Absolutely. How about having an uncomfortable conversation with a Sunday School class? Certainly. But is this all we are called to do?
I then remembered Mohammed Elsanousi, director of the Secretariat of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, explaining earlier in the dialogue, “When we do things like this in Islam, we are not allowed to do them on our own. We are instructed to invite our non-Muslim neighbors to witness what we are doing to hold us accountable.”
He was speaking about his advocacy for the Marrakesh Declaration, a document authored by Muslim scholars across the globe urging Muslim-majority countries to protect Christians and other religious minorities.
As a Baptist, I was deeply moved by this effort that honored the legacy of John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams and John Leland, just as much as the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.
I felt God calling me not to be a witness in the sense of accountability, but to “bear witness,” to share the good news about the compassionate, sacrificial work my Muslim neighbors were doing with all who would listen.
I felt this call again when Imad Enchassi, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, who saw Christian soldiers massacre Muslims in his refugee camp as a child, embraced a Baptist pastor and called him his “brother from another mother.”
I felt called to bear witness as Anwar Khan, president of Islamic Relief USA, spoke about Islamic Relief’s work to feed Rohingya Muslims in Bangladeshi refugee camps and help hurricane victims in Tarboro, North Carolina.
I felt called to bear witness to the faith of brothers like Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes, resident scholar and imam at the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton, as he showed us how to wash our hands, arms, feet and head to cleanse ourselves from the dirt of our lives and invited us to pray shoulder to shoulder.
One of my new Muslim friends told me he feels closest to God with his face on the ground, and for a moment I understood what he meant.
I felt called to bear witness to the mystery of God I experienced as I fell to my knees and the kinship I felt as I heard “Peace be upon you” spoken to me over the shoulder of my brother.
Over the years, I have been quick to call out what I saw was wrong in talk about Muslims and Islam.
While I still believe this kind of critique is important, now I feel more compelled to bear witness to what is right about the lives of my Muslim neighbors.
What if we focused on telling the stories of their spiritual journeys and their acts of neighbor-love that rarely make the headlines?
What if we committed to give testimony to the connection we feel with God in conversation, prayer and shared meals with our Muslim friends? How might this change the conversation?
Perhaps it would open up just enough wonder to transcend our typical arguments.
Maybe it would build enough of a platform to allow us as interfaith advocates to stop being defenders of Islam and step aside to allow our Muslim friends to tell their own stories with the possibility of being known and loved in our communities.
Willie Jennings, associate professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School, writes that the key to dismantling racism is not knowledge but desire.
We don’t change because we gain more knowledge. We change because we fall in love with those we have been taught to hate.
Could it be the same with dismantling Islamophobia?
I love my Muslim sisters and brothers and I will bear witness to the beauty of their lives, hoping that others will see what I see in them. I will not be silent.
Drew Herring is the minister of adult education and outreach at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. His writings also appear on his blog, Unfinished Thoughts, and you can follow him on Twitter at @drew7786.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the third Baptist-Muslim Dialogue held April 16-19 in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Photos from the event are available here. A series of video interviews from the dialogue will be published here.
Previous articles in the series are:
What Happens When Baptists, Muslims Work Together by Richard P. Olson
6 Factors That Brought Baptist, Muslim Leaders Together by Rob Sellers
Baptist-Muslim Dialogue Opened My Eyes to Interfaith Engagement by Trisha Miller Manarin
Why This Baptist Pastor Says, ‘I’m With Muslims’ by Jonathan Davis