Three individuals described how they built relational bridges over the cultural minefield of Christian-Muslim tensions. They told their stories at the annual EthicsDaily.com luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Assembly in Charlotte, N.C.
While noting that joining hands and forces doesn’t mean marching in theological lockstep, bonding experiences can occur in many ways, according to panelists at the luncheon, hosted by Pritchard Memorial Baptist Church in Charlotte.
In these cases, they took the form of a diverse pilgrimage, showing a documentary, and a dialogue among college students in the largest Islamic country in the world.
Telling stories about developing interfaith relationships occurred after the luncheon screening of one segment of the EthicsDaily.com documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” which has been shown on ABC-TV stations throughout the country.
That segment featured the story of a Lake Charles, La., Baptist pastor and his friend, a leader in the Muslim community in Port Arthur, Texas.
Like those in the documentary, several goodwill Baptists at the luncheon recalled how they have been in relationships with Muslims and focused on “loving God and loving neighbor” – Scriptural mandates in both religions.
Mary Keller, a Baptist laywoman from Dallas, recently went on an interfaith religious pilgrimage to Turkey, which has both Christian and Islamic roots. She said it wasn’t a typical tourism trip for the 17 people: six Christians, six Muslims and five Jews. Their group was led by a Baptist pastor, a rabbi and an imam.
“We did not know each other beforehand but came home close friends,” Keller said. “That’s what this is all about. We need to build relationships in order to understand each other.”
She said the dialogue and journey toward understanding each other overshadowed the physical journey.
“The most valuable part of the experience was the relationships formed and friendships and ability to know one another – and not under pretense that we were all the same,” she said. “We do have different beliefs. We respect each other and want to understand each other. Two-thirds of the world is either Christian or Muslim. If we don’t get along and try to understand each other, it’s gonna be a hateful world.
“We need to try to destroy some of the stereotypes and ignorance that pervades our culture,” she continued, “and appreciate fellow human beings as creatures of God and people we need to know and love.”
Jim Somerville, pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., participated in a “Believers Conference” in which Muslims who had converted to Christianity told their stories and gave their testimonies.
That meeting, he said, was full of anti-Muslim rhetoric, so he decided to screen “Different Books, Common Word” in his church.
“I told folks that we are commanded by Christ to love our neighbors, and Muslims are some of our neighbors, so why don’t you come out and see the movie?” he said.
The dynamic produced a bridge.
“The spirit at that event was completely different,” Somerville said. “People came out with big smiles on their faces, talking about how we can be better neighbors to Muslims in Richmond and how surprised they were that we have the same command from God to love God and love neighbor.
“It showed how Baptists and Muslims could work together for a common cause. It doesn’t mean that we’re the same,” Somerville said. “It doesn’t mean we would not love for them to know Christ. It just means we begin as neighbors and go from there.”
Rob Sellers, who teaches religion at Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas, recently took a group of students to Indonesia (the largest Muslim nation in the world), where he had served for 25 years as a missionary.
“The main purpose of our trip was to try to engage Baptist students in dialogue with Muslims,” he said. He said two of the largest Muslim organizations in Jakarta expressed an eagerness to have a dialogue and work with Christians. “They told us we need to work together with people of other faiths to address a lot of the issues in their country.”
In January 2009, Sellers was part of a Baptist-Muslim dialogue in Boston. “We talked about common issues of loving neighbors and looked at it from Baptist and Muslim backgrounds,” he said. “We talked about our Scriptures, our practices and our backgrounds and what they teach us about how to love neighbors.”
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and co-producer of the documentary, said such events and dialogue are hopefully creating a new narrative of interfaith relationships in this country.
“Goodwill Baptists and goodwill Muslims can find common ground in the common and moral teaching of ‘love thy neighbor’ in both of our traditions,” Parham said.
And Sellers had some advice about what each person in the large room at Pritchard Memorial can do.
“Meet a Muslim in your area and become friends,” said Sellers. “And when those emails come across your computer that say awful things about Muslims, don’t forward those. In fact, correct the image.”
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.