Photo Courtesy of Eric Folkerth
Leaders of many faiths led a gathering in support of Muslims and against extremism and religious prejudice.
For all its feuds, foibles and failings, The United Methodist Church does one thing spectacularly well: fostering alliances and friendships among believers of many traditions. This spiritual gift of hospitality lay behind an extraordinary meeting on Jan. 25 in Dallas, Texas, when more than 400 people came together at a United Methodist congregation to stand against prejudice and hatred toward American Muslims.
Specifically the gathering responded to a Jan. 18 demonstration against a Muslim peace conference held in neighboring Garland, Texas, a suburb northeast of Dallas. As a video from WFAA Channel 8, an ABC affiliate, showed, excessive hate speech spurred the show of friendship.
The incident in Garland prompted Dr. Hind Jarrah, a female leader in the Islamic Association of North Texas, to contact the Rev. Eric Folkerth of Northaven United Methodist Church. Northaven sponsors an interfaith fellowship called Second Community, through which believers of different faiths meet monthly to learn from one another and discuss current events involving religion. Together they, along with other religious leaders, organized the Jan. 25 event and prepared a written statement condemning extremism and especially Islamophobia.
The event drew an estimated 420 leaders and adherents from Dallas' Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Ba'hai communities. The cordial participants who packed Northaven's futuristic round sanctuary on a spring-like Sunday afternoon created a miniature parliament of world religions that vividly countered the prejudice spewed on the previous weekend. Christians came wearing their Sunday best or in jeans and T-shirts with social witness slogans like "Justice for All" and "We're for the Separation of Church and Hate." Muslims came attired in traditional tunics and trousers, with pillbox hats and scarves. Muslim women came bareheaded in business casual outfits or wearing modest long dresses and the head covering known as hijab. Jews in fashionable suits sat attentively in front rows, while Buddhists in wine-colored robes waved cheerfully from the balcony.
Classic folk song surprises crowd
Two opening songs of popular Egyptian music played on tambour and oud (Arabic drum and mandolin respectively) set the event's cultural tone. Primed for more such music, the gathering seemed caught off-guard when the musicians began to play Woody Guthrie's classic folk song, "This Land Is Your Land." In moments, however, spectators joined in and sang the chorus of the quintessential American anthem three times.
The song summarized musically the distinctively American nature underlying the gathering – freedom of religion as provided in the First Amendment. Rev. Folkerth called Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu leaders to the stage to be recognized, followed by Christians, including a large contingent of United Methodist clergy led by Bishop Mike McKee, episcopal leader of the Dallas Area.
After they were seated, Rev. Folkerth read excerpts from a prepared document, "An Interfaith Statement Against Hate and Violence in Our Community." The assembly signaled its agreement with the statement with a standing ovation. Dr. Jarrah spoke briefly of being encouraged and comforted by many supportive responses to the hate-filled demonstration, including an invitation from St. Stephen United Methodist Church in neighboring Mesquite, Texas, for Muslims to meet in their building. Dr. Jarrah gave most of her allotted speaking time to a young woman, Zuha Alam, who chanted in Arabic from the Qu'ran verses that Dr. Hind described as the Muslim equivalent of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments. Dr. Hind translated the Arabic verses into English for the crowd to understand.
The event included a panel discussion featuring Imam Shpendim Nadzaku of the Islamic Association of North Texas; former Texas state legislator Lon Burnham, a leader of the Society of Friends (Quakers); Dr. Hind; and the Rev. Wes Magruder, pastor of Kessler Park United Methodist Church in Dallas.
'Don't work your ministers so much'
Imam Nadzaku drew chuckles from the audience when he counseled the faith communities represented, "Don't work your ministers so much, so they'll have time for interfaith work like this." Both he and Dr. Jarrah encouraged the gathering to foster personal relationships with Muslim co-workers and neighbors, such as having meals together, to increase mutual understanding.
Mr. Burnham strongly encouraged the assembly to use existing institutions as channels for interfaith relationships, or to create new fellowships to counter the growing threat of Islamophobia. From the audience, a female Jewish rabbi commented that the slurs being used against Muslims today strongly resemble those used against Jews 75 years ago.
A former United Methodist missionary to Cameroon, Rev. Magruder spoke of joining Muslim associates in the fast associated with Ramadan, a month of strict religious observance for Muslims. He noted humorously that instead of losing weight by fasting, he gained weight during Ramadan "because I ate so many wonderful feasts."
Turning serious, however, Rev. Magruder added that by observing the Ramadan fast, he became better acquainted with the Christian spiritual discipline of fasting, a practice that Methodism's founder John Wesley used and recommended.
In particular, the speakers emphasized how unreasonable and unjust it is to blame all Muslims for the acts of a few people. Mr. Burnham said that all the world's major religions teach love, and that those who use violence are blaspheming the faith they may claim. Rev. Folkerth said he once "spent a lot of time apologizing" for the actions of so-called "Christian" extremists until he realized how unfair and useless such apologies really were.
As the event drew to a close, Rev. Folkerth called the gathering's attention to United Methodism's own official statement, "Prejudice Against Muslims and Arabs in the USA" printed in the program. First adopted in 1988 by the General Conference, the only body empowered to speak for the entire denomination, the statement was amended and re-adopted in 2000, 2004 and reaffirmed in 2008. Among its declarations, the statement calls United Methodists "to oppose demagoguery, manipulation and image making that seeks to label Arabs and Muslims in a negative way," and "to counter stereotypical and bigoted statements made against Muslims and Islam, Arabs and Arabic culture."
As the crowd filed out after Bishop McKee's benediction, participants were seen to exchange handshakes, hugs, business cards and notes with information for future contact. While no formal organizing was announced, the event appeared to have laid a solid foundation for future interfaith cooperation.
Cynthia B. Astle serves as coordinator of United Methodist Insight.