Picture this scene:
- The faith community gathers in their worship space on a summer evening. Groups mill about, inside and out.
- Tow-headed children are underfoot, gleefully chasing and chattering.
- The boys have found a ball somewhere and seamlessly formed themselves into teams that run and run and run.
- Pretty young teenage girls flit by in tight groups, shy smiles masking what they are thinking.
- Parents whisk into the parking lot, late, looking for a parking place so they can get inside before the service starts.
- There is food. Lots of food, its delicious smells permeating the air.
- “Who made that dessert? What’s the recipe?”
- People settle around tables into conversation and eating, laughter filling the air.
- Pastors gravitate toward one another to talk shop – or not.
- Only the call to prayer shushes the conversation.
- And soon it will be over, this evening of fellowship and worship among the faithful people of God.
These words describe many evenings I’ve spent at Guilford Park over the last three decades. But they also describe the worshipping community nearly 30 of us visited on Monday evening at the Islamic Center of Greensboro, as the honored guests of our Muslim friends. We were there to share and witness Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast of Ramadan.
For some this was nothing new, having visited before. Many of us, however, confessed to some anxiety over strange customs, dress, and language. And indeed most of the people didn’t look or dress quite like us. They surely didn’t pray like us. Their worship and eating space was wide and open, the floor carpeted with the beautifully ornate continuous pattern that designates individual prayer spaces. We didn’t really know what was going to happen next, how it would sound or what it would mean.
We noticed differences in the feel of the space, in the separation of women and men, in the language that not even all those praying fully understood. Welcomed as honored guests, we sat apart from most of the Muslim community at dinner, invited to ask questions, and were observers only of the prayers. Should we pray? Should we eat while they prayed? Should we take pictures of people praying? We were definitely out of our comfort zone!
And yet … And yet.
Their faith and commitment were evident. And our presence in that space, among those friends, was a witness to our own faith in the love of God we proclaim in Jesus. At a time when these peaceful, worshipping neighbors are the subject of suspicion and blame for the actions of a few extremists, we went to eat with them, to visit with them. They thanked us profusely. Yes, THEY – who fed and welcomed us – thanked US repeatedly for coming to them, for being there. Could the upside-down message of Jesus be any better illustrated that that?
Jo brought them the gift of a prayer shawl on our behalf, which Jeff presented (Jo’s not in the picture above because she took it.) When I mentioned to one of our new friends that the shawl had been lovingly made and prayed over by our congregation, he smiled and told me that it would be hung in a place of honor, at the center of many more prayers.
Hopefully we all came away aware that what is common among us far outweighs the differences. We are all children of God, seeking to live in peace with our neighbors.
It was an extraordinary evening, leaving us with much to ponder.