Two simple things: a handshake and a well-worn work hat.
They’re each down-to-earth basics that represented progress toward improving relations between Christians and Muslims in two North Carolina communities.
At the EthicsDaily.com luncheon at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Assembly in Charlotte, N.C., Chuck McGathy, pastor of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C., and Ken Massey, who pastors First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C., related some baby steps in two different situations that became significant strides in Baptist-Muslim relationships.
Madison is a rural community where McGathy says “NPR comes in when the wind blows right, but the voices of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck come in very clear.” He joked that interfaith dialogue in that community “is usually when the Presbyterians and the Methodists get together at a Chinese restaurant.”
One day, McGathy placed a banner outside his church with a Muslim crescent on one side and a cross on the other; he was advertising a dialogue session for “better understanding of our Muslim neighbors.”
The dialogue, using as its foundation the story of the Good Samaritan, attracted a lot of talk and attention. “I think it served as a springboard for us to understand people as people,” McGathy said.
Afterward, a man, typical of citizens in that community, approached McGathy and shook his hand and said, “You gave me a lot to think about.”
McGathy added, “People have noted that First Baptist Church has a different perspective.”
Massey, pastor of First Baptist in Greensboro, had a different story to tell. It began right after the 9/11 attacks, when Massey, a rabbi and an imam held a joint press conference urging citizens to remain calm.
The press conference led Massey into a relationship with a Muslim couple in his community who owned a Mediterranean restaurant.
As dialogue ensued and the couple learned of Massey’s church mission trip to Jordan to build a Habitat for Humanity house, the Muslim couple offered to help train the Baptist church members in language and culture.
After members returned from that trip, church members wanted to do it again. This time, the Muslim couple wanted to go.
“You must understand that we have church members who forward emails to me from Rush Limbaugh,” Massey said.
The Muslim couple attended devotional and prayer sessions with members going on the trip, but then came the real test.
The church staff wanted the church to vote to subsidize the Muslim couple in the same manner they were subsidizing church members for their expenses.
Massey said the temptation was simply to introduce the couple, Masoud and Anna, as basically interpreters.
“We didn’t say that,” Massey recalled. “We were transparent. We said, ‘They are Muslim. And we think it’s important that when we go to build a Habitat house in a foreign land that we can illustrate that kind of commonality with them.’ I didn’t get one word from anybody we should not be taking Muslims on mission trips.”
“We commissioned them with the rest of the team,” said Massey. “And that was a trip.”
One of the men who went on the first mission trip had died. His widow wanted to send the hat that he had worn every day on the previous construction project with the new group so they could bury it somewhere in Jordan as a symbol of his work there.
The Habitat houses in Jordan are constructed with cinder blocks, so the mission team thought it was appropriate to bury the hat in one of the cinder blocks. Then, Masoud suggested that a green marker be placed alongside the hat because green in Islam represents heaven.
“That hat and the marker are buried under that Habitat house in Jordan,” Massey said.
So a common but well-used work hat and a simple green marker are buried side by side. One item represents service to neighbors on earth; the other reward in heaven. Each has symbolic meaning in two different religions.
Together, beneath a home in a Muslim-dominated country and commemorating the life of a Christian servant, they are emblematic of loving neighbors and living in peace.
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” click here.