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Baptists and Muslims: From Strangers to Neighbors

When I’m at my best, I’m muslim.

Now, before you write First Baptist Church of High Point, North Carolina, and demand they rescind my ordination as a Baptist minister, take a deep breath and hear me out.

I helped to organize a “Stranger to Neighbor” event held Feb. 11 at Anoor Islamic Center in Clemmons, North Carolina. Its sole purpose was to break barriers and to make friends.

About 50 Christians from at least four area churches gathered in the education building behind the mosque willing to put themselves into a new, likely uncomfortable situation to show their neighbors that at least some Christians do not consider them “the other.”

I wanted friends who seldom experience a situation in which they are not the privileged white majority to get a taste of what it might be like to stick out from the crowd.

I wanted our Muslim neighbors to know that they have friends in the wider community.

Funny thing is, apart from the hijab worn by the ladies, this could have been a Sunday night fellowship dinner at your local church or lunch at your Rotary Club.

I arrived early to help set up the folding tables and arrange 10 plastic chairs around each in a loud room with tile floors and cement block walls.

We passed out waters and napkins and plastic forks, made sure the sound system worked from the podium, greeted each other, slapped on name tags with table assignments, ordered the pizza and wondered who would show up.

Wide-eyed and smiling, my friends old and new came through the door, and mosque members greeted them with handshakes and similar smiles. There really was no ice to break.

Kids were on their smartphones, adults were asking teens to help with the computer, a teen in a hijab wrote names on adhesive strips and made table assignments.

Aladin Ebraheem opened the conversation and unknowingly provided my opening statement above.

“Muslim,” he explained, is an Arabic word that means “fully submitted to the will of God.”

So, at my best, I’m muslim. God knows, I’m not muslim enough.

How is it those who follow Islam have become such a target of hate in this country?

It is to the advantage of those with a vested profit interest in the machinery of war to keep us on edge, to make us wary of “the other.”

The “other du jour” is “Islamic terrorists,” two words stated so easily and frequently together that “Islamic” has become the generic adjective describing “terrorist.”

Like Kleenex has become the generic name for a soft paper nose wipe.

The effect is for us to see any practitioner of Islam as a terrorist. That mindset is wrong, misguided, impractical and ignorant.

It taints and stains our reactions when we see someone who obviously is Muslim. They know it.

How nerve wracking must it be to feel your eyes on them and to hear the muttering directive to “go home to your own country.”

Since the last national election, our new friends said, a lot of people “have been emboldened” to let their prejudiced, hateful feelings bubble to the surface. The result is hate crimes against innocents.

An armed, uniformed police officer parks at the entrance to Anoor Islamic Center for each service.

So, modeled on a “Stranger to Neighbor” event held by area Methodist churches to get their Anglo and Hispanic congregations talking with each other, I approached the Anoor Islamic Center to see if we could have a friend-making event. They were immediately open to it and suggested that they host it to really push the envelope of comfort.

“We’re cousins,” Ebraheem told the Muslims and Christians in the crowded room, noting that both look to Abraham as a patriarch of their faith.

One line descended from Abraham’s son, Isaac; the other line from Abraham’s son, Ishmael.

We all bear the nature of Adam, the first man. The weather and the economy affect us equally.

Islam respects Jesus as “a mighty prophet” but does not recognize Jesus as God incarnate, God con carne, God with meat. We worship the same God, but we understand and relate to God differently.

There was a question about how and why Christianity is divided into Catholic and Protestant camps. They learned about the universal church, Martin Luther and “faith alone.”

We asked them about Sunni and Shia sects and learned their worship is the same; their divisions are political.

Terrorism? Speaker Handy Radwan came to the U.S. from Egypt. On each of his first five days as a physical therapist in a Washington, D.C., hospital, it was locked down because of an active shooter. His family at home was terrified for him.

This event worked for me. I confess, going to meet mosque leaders for the first time, just as prayers were finishing and I was swimming upstream against a flood of Muslims coming from the mosque, I was intimidated.

I was obviously not one of them, and, given their logical nervousness over previous threats from people who looked like me, I felt their stares.

All of that lasted only as long as the first handshake. The first shared smile. The first laugh that shred the curtain of separation.

From a stranger, to a neighbor. It just takes an extended hand.

Norman Jameson is a writer and fundraising consultant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he is a member of Ardmore Baptist Church. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Words and Deeds, and is used with permission.