Our new Voices Together hymnal invites us to expand our circle. This involves getting to know people with different abilities, cultural ways, histories, faiths and stories that shaped them. It involves welcoming everyone as members of our human family.
In a recent webinar, author Omar Mouallem shared from his recently published book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas. I asked Omar what advice he would have for an interfaith worker like myself. He responded that good interfaith work considers each group’s histories as part of the bridge-building. As well, he encouraged me to explore smaller groups who have particular histories, not just the mainline groups that have greater power to represent others.
Omar summed up his advice with this: “It is hard to be afraid when you understand.” Interfaith work is about bridging to create opportunity for understanding.
The nudge I heard from Omar is that deep understanding comes from knowing about faith practices and beliefs, but, perhaps even more importantly, understanding the stories and histories that have shaped each individual and each group. These histories include what happened long ago and current geopolitics, but also the local history of the group in recent times. Our tendency is to take shortcuts, reducing people’s stories by taking our cues from leaders and a media that often distorts the balance that stories of individuals and small groups offer.
Understanding is an antidote to fear. What is the opposite of “afraid”? And what is the opposite of “understand”? I propose that, in the context of interfaith work, the opposite of “afraid” is “familiar” and “predictable.” When something is unfamiliar and unpredictable, it can give us a sense of fear. When things are familiar and predictable, we settle into acceptance as part of our normal. Of course, this takes time and practice.
The opposite of “understand” might be captured as the “oppression of misinformation.” Misinformation encompasses all of the stories that are either only partly true or entirely false representations of me, my people, my history, my reality and my faith. When we understand, then we have done the work of listening to stories of others, which leads to that which we most need in relationship—for those stories to be believed as true. When we accept misinformation as truth, we become part of an oppressive machine that perpetuates stories that allow harm to flourish.
Part of my job is to work with our Mennonite Church Alberta community to create opportunities for relationships to develop safely in unfamiliar and unpredictable contexts. Then we, as a community, can begin to feel that there is familiarity and predictability in our interactions with people of different faiths. I do this by reaching out, showing up and hanging out with Muslims of all types, and by sharing my stories with you.
As we Mennonites absorb these stories, we can push back against the oppression of misinformation and we can create spaces for trusting and allied relationships to flourish—in the spirit of Jesus, our great example and saviour.
Suzanne Gross is an interim worker for Mennonite Church Alberta in its North Edmonton Ministry. Her blog is at mcab.ca/north-edmonton-ministry.