Interfaith friendships root us in God’s love

By the Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell

Over a year ago, after the first Women’s March in Washington, D.C., I posted a notice on Nextdoor — a social media site for neighborhoods — asking if any neighbors wanted to get together to write postcards to our local legislators. At first, I suggested meeting at a coffee shop, assuming I would get maybe six or eight people together. When more than 60 responded, I knew we had to change venues.

My church was booked with a Girl Scout troop, but my colleague at the United Methodist Church had space for us. Approximately 100 of my neighbors gathered, and I recognized that this was a God-moment — an opportunity for us to truly get to know each other and to help create change together.

I used my organizing skills to help us group by concerns of interest, including health care, education and racism. A young woman in a hijab approached me, asking if she could help lead the group focused on combating hate, including Islamophobia. I said ‘yes,” and she introduced herself as Theresa.

After meeting with her a few times at our local organizing gatherings, Theresa told me of her wonderful idea to invite a few Muslims to my church to speak about their faith and to share food and tea. I eagerly agreed. We expected 20 to 30 people from my church and her friends. (My congregation was averaging 25 on Sundays at that time.) More than 100 attended from the greater community, including elected officials, neighbors from other churches, even neighbors of different faith traditions or none at all.

One of the Muslim attendees told me she had never been in a church before. She asked to see a Bible and began reading Genesis right there in the pew. Two Muslim leaders spoke about areas of common concern and about wanting to know as much about us as we wanted to know about them. Then everyone ate together in the fellowship hall. Gathering neighbors of all faiths together is one of the greatest highlights of my ministry.

Soon after, I accepted a call to another Seattle-area church, leaving the local organizing group behind. The group dwindled, but Theresa and I have continued to meet for coffee because we became friends. I have attended events at her mosque, and she brought her family to a church event before I relocated.

In April, I attended the third Baptist-Muslim Dialogue at Green Lake, Wis. While I attended because I believe in the importance of continued interfaith dialogue, the most pressing reason was that Theresa is my friend. To be a good friend, I need to understand the common misconceptions about Muslims and the places where we share commonalities. Although I have attended events at her mosque, being at the dialogue among other Muslim leaders and scholars gave me space to ask questions and to learn from others. We learned about the call to prayer, the practice of ablutions (purifications before prayer) and fasting. It also allowed for questions to go the other way — to ask about the differences between Baptists, to share about our practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Many of the Muslim leaders in attendance expressed their appreciation in learning how different Christians practice these ordinances.

As a group, both Baptists and Muslims in attendance expressed that the common core of our traditions is love. This isn’t a touchy-feely, surface kind of love but the deep love that comes from God. My love for my Muslim neighbors only strengthens my faith in God and my love for Christ, who laid down his life for all. It doesn’t detract from my faith but, instead, strengthens my understanding of God’s love, grace and mercy.

In January, I attended the evening call to prayer at Theresa’s mosque. She explained the prayers, what it means to prostrate before God, and how sometimes she is overcome with emotion during her time of prayer. It reminded me of times I have been overcome by the Holy Spirit, moved to tears. It was a shared experience — a shared understanding of the power of God’s love.

My interfaith relationships are important to me — not just as a leader in the community but as a Christian. Attending the Baptist-Muslim Dialogue and discussing areas of common practice and belief, as well as differences, reminded me that, at the core of our faith traditions is love, and that love, for me, grew from a cup of tea with my friend Theresa.

The Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is pastor of Queen Anne Baptist Church, Seattle, Wash., and ministry associate of social media for the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches USA.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.