IN THE SUMMER OF 2016, WE WENT TO THE COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA, AIRPORT TO MEET A FAMILY AT THE END OF A LONG JOURNEY. But we were a part of an enriching journey of our own. Members of McGregor Presbyterian Church and the Noor Ul Huda Mosque would, over the coming months, journey from places of assumption to truth, from limited perspectives to fresh viewpoints, from communities of tolerance to relationships of deep respect.
And the journey continues.
In 2014, through an intentional visioning process, McGregor Church identified three areas of focus for ministry: nurturing spiritual growth, building community partnerships and practicing God’s justice. We have discovered that building interfaith partnerships satisfies all three areas.
The first introductions between members of McGregor Church and the Noor Ul Huda Mosque occurred before the arrival of a Syrian refugee family. McGregor sponsored the Syrian family through Lutheran Services Carolinas, which works together with the U.S. State Department to settle refugees. In preparation for the family’s arrival, we took note of things this family would need, including apartment furnishings, information to register children in local schools, medical information and a guide to local transportation. But preparing for those basics was not enough.
We also learned that this Syrian family was Muslim and would arrive in early June at the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. If we were to demonstrate Christian hospitality and compassion, we also needed to learn as much as we could about their cultural and religious needs.
Thanks to contacts within Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, McGregor was able to partner with the local mosque in offering hospitality to the Syrian family. The mosque also provided church members essential education about Muslim faith and traditions.
Members of McGregor Church provided transportation for the family to nightly Ramadan prayers at the mosque. The McGregor drivers were warmly welcomed into the mosque to experience Muslim worship. The church members who attended the Muslim prayers said it was humbling and inspirational, prompting further conversations between these new neighbors.
At the end of Ramadan, the McGregor congregation was invited to break the Ramadan fast with these newfound Muslim friends.
Mission committee chair Janelle Frick commented: “We have learned so much about Islam and Muslim traditions through our partnership. But more importantly than that, we have made new friends. We have more in common than we assumed. Reaching out beyond our initial comfort zone has enabled us to see God at work in exciting new ways.”
In the months that followed, McGregor welcomed members of the mosque to a potluck meal with foods from both congregations. This meal provided an opportunity to verbalize our common commitment to be good neighbors. Members of both congregations spoke of their changing perspectives of one another, of our common identity as God’s children and of how much fun we had together.
The Noor Ul Huda Mosque later hosted an “Understanding Islam” event, as well as hosted a showing of the award-winning documentary “The Sultan and the Saint.” Chaudhry Sadiq, president of the Peace and Integration Council of North America (PICNA), said of the ongoing partnership with his mosque: “There is no doubt that God has brought us together and this cannot be without a purpose. … In the given national environment, we hope to make a positive difference, one step at a time.”
This interfaith partnership prompted McGregor to engage more with other faith communities. These initiatives have included participation in a “Peace in the Park” festival during 2016. That gathering, sponsored by Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, celebrates religious diversity and friendships across religious boundaries.
McGregor Presbyterian Church also hosted an interfaith gathering for children and youth to produce a promotional video for the “Peace in the Park” festival.
JULIE BIRD is pastor of McGregor Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. She is married to Adrian and they have two children, Nathan and Lydia.
Upper photo block: Adrian Bird and Imam Hafiz Bashir at the fellowship meal at McGregor Presbyterian Church; Peace in the Park entry “The Puzzle of Peace” by Nathan Bird, 4th grade; Peace in the Park entry “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Regan McGuire, 5th grade; Children from McGregor Presbyterian Church and Noor Ul Huda Mosque play together at the mosque playground (All photos by Julie Bird)