Muslim and Catholic students
Children from St. Paul School learn about Islam at the Muslim-American Youth Academy of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan. (Photo Larry Peplin)
Won't you be my neighbor?

Friendly meetings between Catholics and Muslims can make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood for all God’s children.

A couple of Muslim children—fourth- or fifth-graders probably—squirmed and whispered to each other in the middle of midday prayer at the Muslim-American Youth Academy (MAYA) in Dearborn, Michigan.

Teachers from St. Paul Catholic School in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan were not surprised. “They’re just like our students,” they commented. During their visit to MAYA and the Islamic Center of America, St. Paul students, too, found that the Muslim children are not unlike them: Not only do they all have school uniforms, but they all worship the God of Abraham.

“Some of the students had the idea that Muslims were terrorists, and there was some fear. That was completely gone after the trip,” says St. Paul principal Mary Miller. The interfaith field trip was short, but in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial comments on Islam at the University of Regensburg last September, hearing a presentation on Islam and witnessing the Muslim prayer were critical learning experiences for both children and adults.

“We felt that we reached out and in our own little way built a bridge in a world that needs bridges built,” says Anne McBrien, one of about 18 parents on the field trip.

Across the country, the children of Abraham—young and old—are coming together in dialogue, whether they seek to develop tolerance, relationships, their own faith, or even transform the world.

Neighborly advice

The Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate calls Catholics to dialogue, but it doesn’t say how. Here are five tips for creating fruitful conversation:

1. Take initiative: Not many parishes have a dialogue set up, but a diocese or local organizations may. Also, many mosques are open to visitors.

2. Start with commonalities: Begin with a discussion of Jesus, Mary, or Abraham, or talk about social justice while doing a service project together.

3. Agree to disagree: Dialogue is not about convincing nor converting but respecting your dialogue partners.

4. Speak to your own experience: Dialogue isn’t just for the experts.

5. Avoid political arguments: Stick to interfaith dialogue.—Megan Sweas

First-hand experience
Even though Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim community in the country, St. Paul is on the other side of Detroit. Still, MAYA students are visiting St. Paul in January, and Miller and Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, pastor of St. Paul on the Lake Parish and the ecumenical and interfaith officer for the Archdiocese of Detroit, hope the children will be able to talk over cookies. Some St. Paul parishioners also have asked Halfpenny if they could have an adult trip to the mosque.

But the distance will likely keep the McBrien family from future dialogue. Even so, visiting the mosque at least helped teach her children tolerance and created positive images of Muslims that will stay with them, and her, forever, McBrien says. “You can read about something or see it on TV, but to really be somewhere left a lasting impression,” she says.

Not all St. Paul students learned these lessons, however, and the problem keeping them away from the mosque was much larger than distance. Parents of about 12 children chose not send them on the field trip, fearing for their children’s safety after some Muslims reacted violently to the pope’s Regensburg address in other parts of the world.

“It was controversial,” says McBrien, admitting that she had her doubts about the trip, which was planned before the pope’s comments. “There were definitely parents who were more apprehensive than I was. I just trusted that it was the right thing to do and it was.”

Getting to know you
Negative stereotypes of Muslims can sometimes deter Catholics from seeking dialogue. A 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll found that 31 percent of people who don’t know a Muslim personally would prefer not to have a Muslim neighbor. Among people who know a Muslim, however, only 10 percent feel that way. Face-to-face meeting, therefore, is essential to developing the relationships that eliminate prejudices.

“We’ve gotten to know Muslim women on a one-to-one basis. They have the same values as we do,” says Thelma Walker, a participant in the Muslim-Catholic Women’s Dialogue—a partnership between the Milwaukee archdiocese and the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition.

Discussing their religions, along with everyday issues that all women share, at their monthly meetings has helped break down barriers, and Walker also sees the group as part of her spiritual development. “Everybody has wisdom. The more we interact with other people, the more we learn from their wisdom and they learn from ours,” she says.

Inshirah Farhoud, a board member of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, agrees that the women’s dialogue has strengthened her faith. It makes her ask, “Why do I believe what I believe?” Farhoud says. “I go back and reflect on my faith.”

As women who are grounded in their own faiths and respect each other’s faiths, they can respond to prejudices within their communites. “We aim to create advocates and ambassadors,” says Judith Longdin, archdiocesan director of ecumenical and interfaith concerns.

For example, the Catholic women responded to 9/11 by telling others that Islam did not support terrorism, and the Muslim women told their communities that not all Catholic priests are pedophiles. “One person does not represent the whole faith,” Farhoud says.

With about 75 million Catholics in this country to 6 million Muslims, however, some Catholics have to learn about Islam through a single person.

“I’m asked to become the cultural bridge,” says Jithin George, a 21-year-old Indian Catholic who grew up in the United Arab Emirates. Whereas in the U.A.E. he fielded questions from Muslim friends who thought he worshiped three gods, his classmates at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania ask him what Muslims believe. “It’s part of my character now. I’m almost always expected to bring in the different point of view,” he says.

And while he did not appreciate growing up a minority and having to defend his faith, George says, “once I came here, I did feel blessed that I have seen more than just my own religion.”

In order to involve more people on the ground who haven’t been as blessed as George, the Milwaukee Women’s Dialogue has hosted three annual community-wide conferences. “You can share some of that relational sense through education,” Longdin says, “but it’s not going to have the same impact as an encounter with an individual.”

Organizers can provide a place for people to meet, but it is up to individuals to take that difficult step from one-time interaction to genuine relationship.

“We don’t really have the opportunity to be entirely open,” Farhoud says of her experience speaking at parishes. In the women’s group “we can expose our strengths and weaknesses because we have that relationship. We’re not going to be judged.”

In discussing the Trinity, for example, her dialogue partners have told her that they, too, struggle to understand the concept. “I don’t think anybody that I met for the first time would share that with me,” she says, adding that it took time for her group to reach that trust.

In Michigan the Dearborn Area Ministerial Association, an interfaith group, also holds community events, such as a documentary screening, dinner, and conversation attended by more than 200 people at Sacred Heart Parish last November.

Virginia Trapp, an 80-year-old Sacred Heart parishioner who sat with her husband and friends, enjoyed the event, but adds, “I didn’t get to know anybody on a personal basis.”

Friendships develop through everyday life and common activities, not forced interactions, Trapp says. Already a tolerant person, she’s not sure she would strive to develop new relationships at this point in her life, but her hope lies with the young. “You are on the right track when you talk about the children. That’s where the change is going to come,” she says.

Starting young
Studies show that young people are much more likely to view Muslims favorably than Trapp’s generation. The Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) capitalizes on their openness and energy by bringing youth of different religions together through service activities.

Every April the Chicago-based nonprofit coordinates service days in communities in all 50 states and around the world. After doing service, participants discuss how their traditions inspire them to serve. IFYC also organizes the Chicago Interfaith Youth Council, a group of high school and college students who meet weekly to talk about their faith and volunteer together.

IFYC teaches people how to talk about the usually taboo topic of religion. Rather than talking about it in terms of world conflicts and politics, “they are talking about how they are personally inspired,” says Mariah Neuroth, a charter member of IFYC and an Episcopal adjunct chaplain at DePaul University. “There’s nothing to argue about there. It’s a much less scary way to approach interfaith dialogue.”

Christine Reh, a senior at DePaul University who participated in the Chicago youth council as a sophomore, says her group bonded by sharing something as close to their heart as their faith. She fondly remembers sharing how Pope John Paul II’s visit to her hometown, St. Louis, brought her peace during a difficult childhood and then hearing how daily prayer helped her Muslim friends through bad days.

“I feel like I’ve been a part of someone who is Muslim’s journey,” says Reh, who still cherishes the relationships she developed through the council.

Interfaith dialogue between young people can scare parents who don’t think their children are sufficiently formed in Catholicism to encounter other faiths. This was another reason some St. Paul parents did not allow their children to visit the mosque. As a pastor, Halfpenny respected the parents’ wishes because, he says, they are the primary catechists of the faith.

Neuroth, however, doesn’t think age should keep anyone away from dialogue. “The development of a religious identity is a lifelong process,” she says. People need to know how to be religious in society rather than just within a house of worship. “We’re living blindly if we don’t think our kids face pluralism. Even if they go to a Catholic school in a Catholic neighborhood, they will encounter people of other faiths on the bus, at the YMCA, on MySpace.”

Changing the world
On her first day of work as an intern at IFYC last fall, Karina Harty-Morrison’s co-workers greeted her with questions about her faith journey and beliefs.

“I feel that I’m somewhat stepping out of my comfort zone of Catholicism, having been educated in Catholic institutions my whole life,” says the second-year master’s student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Her Catholic faith, though, is what led her to share IFYC’s vision of a world in which religion is a positive force for good.

“We all consider ourselves to be strong believers in our faith traditions,” Harty-Morrison says of her diverse co-workers. “That’s wonderful because these conversations happen naturally.”

The leaders of IFYC are committed to living out their diverse faiths together everyday in the office, but this is not enough. They also create their ideal world through their youth.

Likewise, cardinals and imams may meet to promote peace, but it also takes positive dialogues between Muslims and Catholics in neighborhoods across the United States—whether through everyday encounters or once-in-a-lifetime events—to create this peace.

Megan Sweas is assistant editor of U.S. Catholic. This interview appeared in the February 2007 (Volume 72, Number 2; pages 24 - 27) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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