Clerical collars and hijabs, men and women, black and white, the diversity in the crowd of more than 200 was clearly visible. Just as obvious, however, was the palpable presence of God as the crowd listened intently to both Christian and Muslim speakers share about the importance of faith to both private and corporate life today.
“Practising faith in a secular society” brought Mennonite and Catholic Christians together with Shia and Sunni Muslims at the Edmonton Islamic Academy on Sept. 13 for dialogue and fellowship over abundant food.
Donna Entz, hired part-time by Mennonite Church Alberta to minister to Muslims and newcomers in North Edmonton, was one of the key organizers of the event. She believes dialogues like this are important to the Mennonite church, saying, “We need to take the respect we’ve learned in service [through organizations like Mennonite Central Committee] and take it into equal friendships with other faiths as a way of moving to the place where Jesus expects us to be . . . to heal and verbalize the message of the kingdom, to get people excited about who Jesus is.”
Masood Peracha, chair of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities, stated the purpose for the dialogue in his address: “May peace be upon you all. . . . Today enhances awareness and understanding between two of the large faiths in this city.”
He went on to explain how the Muslim community is often painted with stereotypes including promoting terrorism, oppressing women and stifling free speech. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Peracha said, adding that dialogue between faith groups helps to break down the stereotypes and foster relationships that go beyond tolerance to friendship and cooperation.
Throughout the event, both Christian and Muslim speakers affirmed common belief in the one God who calls all faithful people to love one another and the world.
Rev. Kevin Kraglund, president of the Edmonton and District Council of Churches, spoke of the need for interfaith dialogue as having particular importance for today’s society. “The religious landscape is shifting beneath our feet,” he said. “In the 1950s, many Christians did not know someone from another faith. Now Jews, Christians and Muslims live as neighbours.” He emphasized a need for faith groups to share their beliefs with each other and the world with an attitude of gentleness and reverence, seeking to “count conversations, not conversions.”
A spirit of gentleness, respect and devotion to God permeated all 12 addresses, as well as conversation around the tables. A common theme was the importance of the active living out of faith through acts of love and service to neighbours and community.
Mennonite speakers at the event included Carol Penner, pastor of Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church; Thomas Bumbeh, a board member at Holyrood Mennonite, Edmonton; and Miriam Gross, a member of First Mennonite, Edmonton.
Penner gave a brief explanation of what it means to be a Mennonite, noting that Mennonites strive to witness to Christ by following the example of Jesus, who washed his disciples’ feet.
Bumbeh told a personal story of effective witness to an employer through commitment to being in church on Sunday. He is currently appreciating getting to know his Muslim co-workers and learning that they have much in common.
Gross commented on the importance of faith expressed through habit, lifestyle and a willingness to engage in sharing about faith when people ask. “Actions are only effective if we can communicate well,” she said.
Julien Hammond, coordinator of ecumenical and interreligious relations for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, believes in the importance of developing strong interfaith understanding and friendship. “ We are blessed here in Edmonton to have the [Edmonton District Council of Churches] and the [Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities]. When something happens in one of our communities, we call each other,” he said. “When a rock gets thrown at a mosque window, or a swastika gets painted on a synagogue, or some graffiti gets painted on a church, [we stand together]. . . . The idea is that the communities aren’t strangers to each other. We call each other to stand together to denounce violence.”
At the close of the event, Mennonites in the crowd were invited to the front to sing the hymn “For We Are Strangers No More.” The lyrics summed up the gracious mood of the dialogue, ending with the line; “Strangers no more, we’re sisters and we’re brothers now.”