When I entered the hotel lobby on the first morning of a Muslim-Baptist mission trip to Tanzania for the distribution of mosquito-repellent nets, I heard the sound system playing "Silent Night" by an American artist and felt the needed breeze from the Indian Ocean blowing through the lobby. It was a nice, albeit ironic, touch on Dec. 1. It was a preview of one of many ironies.
Robert Parham, right, interviews Sultan Swalehe Zomboko, an imam in a Tanzanian village. Gervaz Lushajy, a Roman Catholic student at the Feza Boys' School, translates between English and Swahili. (Photo: T. Thomas)
Weaving our way out of the city of Dar es Salaam on the first day, I noted a bus with a sign above the cab – "Born 2 Suffer." Other buses had signs like "Power of God" and "In God We Trust." Needless to say, I saw no bus signs with an atheist message.
Ibrahim Yunus Rashid, a university-educated advanced math teacher at the Feza Schools, a boarding school, told me that one could not automatically know the faith affiliation of a vehicle based on religious slogans. Such bus signs could represent either a Muslim or a Christian. However, some buses were explicitly identified, such as the Islamic Express.
Rashid shared that he once saw a sign on a car: "This car is guided by the blood of Jesus."
On the return trip that day after distributing nets in three locations, Rashid pulled off the two-lane tarmac road. He was stopping for mid-afternoon prayers at a small mosque.
Orhan Osman, executive director of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog of Oklahoma and organizer of the trip, joined Rashid and others.
Gervaz Lushajy, a senior at the Feza Schools, who was in our car, did not. Lushajy told me he was a Christian. Before he began attending the Feza Schools, he said he had attended an Islamic primary school.
Lushajy pointed out that if one religion dominated in Tanzania, then the country would lean in that particular direction. But with Arab and British heritage, neither religion held sway. He said interfaith marriage was as common as intertribal marriage.
At each stop, in almost every conversation, I heard the same refrain from Tanzanians. Rashid said it best: "Religious tolerance is very high. People are intermingling."
In no small measure, part of our trip was about demonstrating how some Christians and Muslims in the United States sought the common good together. Yet Tanzanians appear to share common religious ground in a way superior to U.S. Christians who are struggling to interface with U.S. Muslims.
Evidence of Tanzania's religious tolerance appeared also in what women wore. What I found unusual, Tanzanians found normal.
I saw women in Islamic head scarves and others with traditional African head dresses. At the Feza Schools graduation ceremony, the wife of the Turkish ambassador appeared in a stylistic "Western" suit. A few feet away from her was another woman who wore a black burqa and videotaped some of the ceremony.
I observed with some frequency women in military uniforms around the Lugalo Military Base, and some women directing traffic at intersections. Younger professional-looking women were driving while talking on their cell phones, a dynamic that parallels what takes place in the United States.
Another fragmentary note relates to the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity. Both have a missionary commitment to education. The Gulen movement establishes schools around the world, as do Baptists. Baptists tend to educate the poor. The Feza Schools, for example, prides itself on providing a first-rate education to the sons and daughters of the country's elite.
Speaking about the theological nature of the Tanzanian trip, T. Thomas, founder of Oklahoma-based HISNets, said, "We don't seek to find a way to consolidate our faiths."
Thomas, who also directs the CBF of Oklahoma, said, "Most evangelical Christians begin a conversation with Muslims in order to convert them."
Thomas begins from another vantage point: "My premise is this: that there can't be a real friendship between two people if there is a hidden agenda."
While Tanzania and the United States offer profoundly different societies, they do share one commonality – a sense of humor.
At the Feza Schools graduation, a former member of parliament said, "Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine."
American culture is creating global change in the most negative way – through its movies.
On a two-hour ferry ride to Zanzibar, a Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker movie played, portraying Chinese and African-Americans as sexually obsessed, stupid, violent and corrupt.
Imagine if such movies are one of the main windows into American culture.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.