My interfaith journey began early one August morning as my new kindergarten students entered my classroom.
Some came in eagerly, some were shy and a few shed a tear or two. The room filled with parents who were also eager, shy and shedding tears.
One little girl with dark brown wavy hair and large brown eyes was escorted in by her two older brothers. As only brothers can be, they felt their duty done and quickly left the room. I went over to welcome her and help her find her locker and seat.
I knew of her family and knew they were Muslim. What I didn’t know at the time is what it was like to be a Muslim in a predominately white public school.
I didn’t know much about the Muslim faith and decided then that I needed to learn. My resolve was strengthened as the school year progressed, and my colleagues made comments to me that I found offensive.
I think most were made out of ignorance, but I didn’t know enough to make an intelligent response other than to say that I found their comments insensitive.
One day at dismissal, my student made a comment about going to school over the weekend.
I asked her if she was learning to read the Koran. She turned and looked at me, her face filled with amazement.
“You know about the Koran?” she asked me.
“I know about it,” I said, “but I don’t know a lot about it.”
The joy in her face made me realize I needed to know more. My resolve to learn ramped up another level.
My student and her family left a few weeks before the end of the school year to travel to Jordan for a family wedding.
In the fall, Mom, who was normally quiet and reserved, made a point of coming and sharing wedding pictures with me.
I was touched that she trusted me enough to share pictures of herself without a hijab.
I realized no one else was in the room who even knew her first name. My resolve meter jumped several levels that day.
I moved from just wanting to know more to wanting to do something. This feeling nagged at me, it pestered me and wouldn’t let me be. The feeling became a conviction that I had to do something now.
That is how, one Sunday morning, I found myself riding in a car with Richard P. Olson, retired professor of pastoral theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, to visit the local mosque.
As we drove, I thought to myself, “What in the world are you getting yourself into?”
I entered the mosque and was warmly greeted and led to a small room. There was a man and a woman in the room. The man was a member of the governing board at the mosque; the woman planned the children’s activities.
I introduced myself and explained how I wanted to develop a program for children to learn about the Muslim faith. I talked a little about my experiences as a schoolteacher.
Then the ice melted, and the woman opened up to me. She talked about how her children were in public school and how she wanted to be a room parent, PTA mom and so on.
After coming to the school a few times, her children asked her not to come anymore because the other children talked and laughed because of the way she dressed. She respected her children’s wishes and no longer went to the school.
One of the men spoke up and said his family had had the same experience. I looked at them with tears in my eyes and told them that this story broke my heart. Even now as I write, the tears come.
I now had the answer to, “What in the world are you doing?” I looked at these parents who were being denied the rich experiences I had with my own children. This is what God had been leading me to see.
That summer, I led a children’s program at my home church, Prairie Baptist in Prairie Village, Kansas. I titled it “Meet Your Neighbor.”
I chose this title because of God’s command to love God and love our neighbor as yourself. The text is in both our holy books and gave us some common ground to start from.
I began by teaching them about Abraham and two of his sons. I showed them how through the Hebrew faith and Jesus that Christianity came to us. I showed them how the Muslim faith came from Abraham as well.
We learned that Allah is Arabic for God and that if you are an Arabic-speaking Christian, you pray to Allah too.
On Wednesday, children from the mosque were invited to our church. The children were so excited. They kept saying, “The Muslims are coming! The Muslims are coming!”
They were so eager to welcome them and show them around they could barely sit still. Our guests finally arrived and were shown all around the church.
We stood in the empty baptismal, got out the communion elements and answered a lot of questions.
The next day, we traveled to the mosque, where our children joined in their summer camp activities. We ate lunch together and joined in afternoon prayer.
Many of my girls wanted to try wearing a hijab. We knelt on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, and I was surprised and pleased to see many of the Christian children joining in the prayer with their Muslim brothers and sisters.
Not too long ago, my 8-year-old granddaughter made this comment after seeing something on the news about Muslims: “Nana, why don’t people like Muslims? Don’t they know that we all worship the same God?”
Carol Stagner is a public schoolteacher and a member at Prairie Baptist Church, Prairie Village, Kansas, where she is a children’s ministry volunteer.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the third Baptist-Muslim Dialogue held April 16-19 in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Photos from the event are available here. A series of video interviews from the dialogue will be published here.
The previous articles in the series are:
What Happens When Baptists, Muslims Work Together by Richard P. Olson
Baptist-Muslim Dialogue Opened My Eyes to Interfaith Engagement by Trisha Miller Manarin
6 Factors That Brought Baptist, Muslim Leaders Together by Rob Sellers
Bearing Witness to Confront Negative Stereotypes about Islam by Drew Herring
Why This Baptist Pastor Says, ‘I’m With Muslims’ by Jonathan Davis
When Spiritual Siblings Unite for the Common Good by Mitch Randall