By Judy Reinsma
In 2009, when Carole Wheeler, a member of Presbyterian Women, attended a meeting of the Presbytery of San Fernando, California, Peacemaking Group, she could hardly have imagined that this meeting would result in a committed and dynamic Muslim–Christian fellowship group that is still active in her community today, 10 years later.
Lisa Patriquin, director of children’s and family ministry at Glendale Presbyterian Church (now a board member of the Guibord Center, an interfaith organization in Los Angeles), introduced the Muslim-Christian interfaith group Standing Together and its goals and programs. Carole was so intrigued that she and her husband, Jeff, accepted an invitation to learn more during an interfaith meeting at a Los Angeles mosque. The Wheelers wondered, could this be something our own church, First Presbyterian Church, Newhall, California, would embrace?
A little background here. In 2006, a group of leaders from mainline Christian denominations and representatives from influential Muslim organizations in Southern California came together to discuss common concerns to Christians and Muslims in post 9/11 America. Their goal was to increase mutual understanding, dialogue, respect, appreciation and support of the sacred in each other. Thus, the Christian–Muslim Consultative Group (CMCG) was formed. The goal of the CMCG was to pair a mosque and a church in order to promote learning, dialogue, and advocacy between the members of the CMCG and their wider communities of faith. Lectures, workshops, press releases, youth gatherings and other activities would be undertaken so that
- Christian and Muslim leaders could learn more about one another’s faith and traditions, thus impacting how they present each other to their own communities;
- Christian and Muslim congregations would be encouraged to engage in dialogue, leading to greater appreciation of one another;
- religious leaders would be able to speak more effectively and with one voice, especially at times of crisis;
- local dialogue and cooperation would lead to positive changes in Christian and Muslim attitudes toward each other.
A lofty goal, indeed, but first they had to start at the local church level. Following that first meeting, where the Wheelers learned about Standing Together, the CMCG was invited to present their concept to the Adult Education Committee at Newhall Presbyterian. Committee members wanted to know more. The pastor supported Newhall Presbyterian’s participation. The CMCG connected Jeff and Carole Wheeler with representatives Jamshed and Faiqa Yazdani of the local mosque, the Unity Center, and the Newhall Standing Together group was born.
The CMCG had already developed a comprehensive study guide that members followed as they embarked on this journey of faith and fellowship. This study guide is still in use and continues to be updated and modified as Standing Together groups share insights and inspirations that have developed over years of working together.
At the first meeting in January 2011, almost 40 people attended, pretty much split half and half between the two congregations. To be honest, people from both faiths were checking this out to see if it was something they approved of, and whether or not they wanted to be involved. In the end, about ten people from the mosque and ten from the church became the original Standing Together group and began meeting once a month to work their way through the curriculum.
The first thing that was discussed and decided upon was that we would abide by certain rules. This was not an opportunity to try to convert one another. We were there to
- talk about our own faith tradition, speak from our experience and knowledge, and honor the knowledge and experience of all members of the group;
- come to the discussions assuming we would disagree on some matters but be open to hearing the other side;
- listen for ways in which we were more alike than different;
- be renewed in our understanding of what makes each of us who we are; and
- in the faithfulness of our Creator, God, we were to Stand Together.
We soon realized that both the Muslim and Christian members had very little, if any knowledge of the others’ holy books. Actually, the Muslims, while not actually reading a Bible, were familiar with many Biblical Jewish and Christian characters and events, as they are foundational to Islam and written of extensively in the Qu’ran. The two groups gifted each other with copies of the Bible and English translations of the Qu’ran, which made the study much more interesting and provided us with the opportunity to see what these books actually said, as opposed to what we may have heard they said. One of the most interesting things we, as Christians, discovered was that Allah is “God” in Arabic. The Muslims worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and even revere Jesus as a prophet. This was quite a surprise for many of us.
Following the study guide every month provided an outline and format for each meeting. This was followed faithfully for the first few meetings. Over the months, though, as we became not just participants, but friends, we found that frequently we diverged from the strict guidelines and discussions would range far afield, into personal experiences, feelings, current events, and so on. The group had become such that we felt comfortable with each other, knew we were among friends, and valued the others’ opinions and insights.
Every year, at the end of Ramadan, the month-long religious daily fast that is a major part of Muslim worship, the Unity Center invites all of us in Standing Together to the Iftar, the breaking of the fast every day at sunset, in the month of Ramadan. It is a friendly gathering, with good food, pleasant conversation, the opportunity to meet many members of the mosque and to participate in the evening prayer prior to eating. While prayers are in Arabic, those of us from the Presbyterian church have been impressed with the feeling of sanctity when we enter the mosque. We women, of course, wear head scarves out of respect, and everyone must remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary area. I was interested to read, in Exodus 3:5, the text from which the tradition of removing one’s shoes comes. God tells Moses, “‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’” To this day, the shoe is considered unclean by Muslims and is to be removed before one enters a mosque, or “holy ground.”
At Christmas, Ash Wednesday and Easter, when we have special services, members of the mosque come to join our worship services. By participating in each other’s services and observing the rituals and prayers of the congregations, we are better able to understand and explain one another’s faith to those in our own church or mosque as well as to others. One of the most valuable results of this faith journey has been that it has given all of us the knowledge and courage to speak truth and love to prejudice and hate. This is a powerful tool for peacemaking in our community.
Over these past nine years our core group has retained almost every single original member. Some have moved away, a few have dropped out for health and other reasons, but they have always been replaced by new, interested and committed people from both congregations. Lasting friendships have been forged. In 2011, after I had been in the group for about a year, my husband suddenly died. At the funeral, members of the mosque group were there, to support and pray for me and my family. I was very touched and could feel the love they were expressing so beautifully. On a happier note, we have been invited to weddings of children of our Muslim friends and have shared many other social events.
A summer pot-luck barbecue was held in 2018 that was a huge success and a lot of fun. Everyone brought dishes they had made, and with the ethnic diversity of the group, there was a wealth of delicious and, in some cases, unusual things to eat. The desserts, especially, were fantastic. This was not strictly for Standing Together members; we invited anyone who could come, from the mosque and our church. There were lots of young families, kids running around having fun, and good conversation among all. Some of those who came had never broken bread with those of the other faith. It was a lovely, congenial time, and we plan to do it again. Unfortunately, we could not do it this past summer because too many people from both groups were out of town on every possible date. Nor could we gather this summer due to COVID-19.
God surely was in charge the day Jeff and Carole Wheeler decided to go to that meeting in 2009. He must have known that this event would lead them to bring the wonderful blessings of Standing Together to our city of Newhall. This is an experience that every thoughtful and loving Christian (and Muslim) can embrace. In America, we live in a society where we daily meet, go to school with, work with, and encounter in everyday life people of an amazing variety of cultures and religions. As Christians, we are admonished to love our neighbor as ourselves. This command, illustrated by the story of the Good Samaritan, makes it clear that our neighbor is everyone—especially, one might say, those with whom we do not agree or perhaps even consider our equals. That was certainly the situation between the Jews and the Samaritans, and surely why Jesus used them to illustrate his command.
The members of Newhall Presbyterian’s Standing Together group hope that you, too, will consider forming an interfaith group with the mosque in your local community. The Christian–Muslim Consultative Group has amazing resources to help any church that wishes to embark on such a journey. We can assure you it is a wonderful experience that will bring you greater understanding of your faith, an appreciation of another faith journey, and most surely, good friends whom you will cherish.
- The Christian–Muslim Consultative Group—See https://cmcgstandingtogeth.wixsite.com/cmcg for information on Standing Together and its curriculum. Click “Get Involved.”
- Carole Wheeler—Synod representative from the Synod of Southern California/Hawaii on PW’s Churchwide Board of Directors and member of Newhall First Presbyterian Church; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Lisa Patriquin—Editor of the Standing Together curriculum and program director for youth and young adults, Guibord Center, https://theguibordcenter.org.
- The Message of the Qur’an—an English translation and commentary by Muhammad Asad, available at http://www.muhammad-asad.com/Message-of-Quran.pdf
- The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2000)
Judy Reinsma is a long-time member of First Presbyterian Church, Newhall, California, a member of Newhall’s Standing Together group and treasurer of Presbyterian Women in the Congregation.