Reports from BJC staff, American Baptist Churches USA, EthicsDaily.com and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
Baptists and Muslims from across the country met in the middle to build bridges and foster new understanding.
On April 16-19, congregational leaders, chaplains and other religious leaders from Baptist and Muslim faith traditions participated in the Third National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue in Green Lake, Wisconsin, organized by American Baptist Churches USA.
The 65 participants hailed from 19 different states and provinces from across the United States and Canada. Leaders 50 years of age and younger attended in hopes of building long-term connections, fostering mutual understanding and participating in a joint project to enhance the welfare of their communities.
“Baptists and Muslims demonstrated how to mutually respect religious diversity while uniting behind a common conviction for peace,” said the Rev. Mitch Randall, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and EthicsDaily.com. “Living in a world torn apart by divisiveness and war, this conference provided a positive example how loving God and loving others can drive away hate and open the door for eternal peace.”
Randall, who recently served as pastor of NorthHaven Church in Norman, Oklahoma, spoke at a session alongside Imam Imad Enchassi of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. For several years, both supported each other as they served their respective congregations in Oklahoma, bearing burdens together, such as facing discrimination and death threats.
“We found that beyond the titles of ‘Pastor’ and ‘Imam,’ we are two humans that are more alike than different,” Randall said.
The conference extended participants the opportunity to build relationships with one another; examine social and political barriers to interfaith work; explore the underpinnings of religious liberty in each tradition; and create a provisional plan to apply the learnings upon returning home.
“The Baptist-Muslim dialogue offered a tiny glimpse of what the world could be – a place of mutual respect, a gathering full of curiosity and learning, a celebration of our shared humanity,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks, pastor of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, who preached at one of the worship sessions.
“Prejudice is unavoidable,” observed the Rev. Doug Avilesbernal, executive minister for the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches USA. “This week I learned what happens when we challenge it within and without.”
“It’s also worth noting that we pastors have, quite often, just as much work to do as any of our parishioners,” said the Rev. Jonathan Davis, pastor of Beale Memorial Baptist Church in Tappahannock, Virginia. “This dialogue helps me confront my own embedded prejudices and stereotypical ideas. It would not be right to begin leading interfaith dialogue in my own community without working through whatever baggage, both culturally and from my own fundamentalist theological upbringing, I carry with me.”
Amid the serious conversations, there was ample time for laughter and bonding, including a group performance of the children’s song “Father Abraham” (with the motions included).
“[T]he laughs that echoed in the halls of Green Lake Conference Center should be heard from Jerusalem, Mecca and Washington, D.C.,” Randall said. “Genuine, authentic laughter communicates the bond of joy in any language.”
The conference was planned in large part by Roy Medley, General Secretary Emeritus of American Baptist Churches USA; Colin Christopher, Director of the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances in Washington, D.C.; and Robert Sellers, Chair of the Board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
In addition to American Baptist Churches USA, sponsoring bodies included the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society; Islamic Relief USA; Islamic Society of North America; Progressive National Baptist Convention; National Baptist Convention of America International; Alliance of Baptists; and Canadian Baptist Ministries.
The First National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue met in 2009, with the second gathering in 2012.
Sparks said she is hopeful about what comes next. “I pray that the dialogue continues, for Baptists and Muslims, and for all faith traditions, so that one day soon this model of friendship becomes a global reality and not just a fleeting glimmer of possibility.”
“I am seeing that this work takes energy and focus, and a sense of call,” Davis said. “How is God calling you and your faith community to engage in meaningful dialogue with other faiths?”
For more on this event:
Read Kyle Tubbs’ reflection: Religious freedom, privilege and interfaith dialogue