I am a firm believer in talking to strangers. It was at the core of my job as a newspaper reporter. If you didn’t talk to strangers, you didn’t get the story. The same has proven true in my private life: Talking to strangers gives me a better understanding of what is going on around me. That’s the basis of my new book, but it’s also the point of this particular piece of writing. Let’s see if I can get the sequence right.
I read this morning that the Catholic Muslim forum met for the fourth time in Berkeley, Calif., this past week. The forum, which I suspect many Catholics don’t know about, was created in 2008 by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and an international group of Muslim scholars who had signed “A Common Word.” (The latter was an open letter to then-Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders, encouraging a dialogue based on values the two faiths hold in common. You can read it here.)
Here’s a quotation from the Catholic Muslim forum’s official report:
“We assert the equal dignity and value of all persons irrespective of their race, gender, religion or social status,” they said, “and we categorically condemn any attempts to stereotype any people or attribute collective guilt to them for the actions of individuals among them.”
So the Catholic Church calls on its members to talk to Muslims. And many other Christian denominations and churches have done the same. It is a first step toward understanding, which is becoming more critical in our world today. I wondered how Americans are feeling about Muslims right now.
A recent Pew study found that only 45 percent of Americans say they know a Muslim today (compared to 38 percent in 2014). So that’s some progress. But those of us who haven’t met a Muslim, let alone had a meaningful conversation, might need some help. Here are a few suggestions:
Look for The Sultan and the Saint, an award-winning film that tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi and Malik Al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, who defied their own religious communities and met, face to face, during the Fifth Crusade. Watch the trailer here. The movie will be screened in Oregon at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Muslim Educational Trust, 10330 SW Scholls Ferry Road in Tigard. Michael Wolf, a producer on the film, will be on hand to talk about the project. Tickets, $10 for adults and $5 for students, are available online and at the door. If you live in the Portland area, come to the movie. There’s a chance you’ll meet a Muslim sitting in the seat beside you. If you don’t live nearby, see if a screening is planned in your town or watch for the film on PBS.
Sponsors for this film screening include The Institute for Christian Muslim Understanding. Our group has been around for 14 years and people are discovering us every day. There’s a chance you may have such an organization that creates opportunities for interfaith interaction where you live. Find them, if you can, and attend an event.
Or do some reading. Jordan Denari Duffner’s new book (to be published next month) is Finding Jesus Among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic. Duffner has lived in the Middle East and her book promises new insights. She makes the case for all Christians to take up the dialogue already endorsed by the Vatican (and mentioned at the top of this piece).
So, back to where I began. Making the effort to meet and talk to a Muslim in your own community is a small but concrete step that you and I can take to thwart efforts to divide people of faith. If we want to know what’s going on around us, we need to talk to strangers.