I recently traveled to Wisconsin to participate in a “Baptist-Muslim Dialogue.”
I’ll give you a moment to pick yourself up off the floor.
For many, it’s hard to imagine a stranger pairing of words than “Baptist” and “Muslim.” In fact, when I mentioned this trip to a friend, his initial response was “A Baptist-Muslim WUT?” Then he let loose a hearty laugh and said, “yup, that’s a good one!”
But this was no joke. As part of this gathering of imams and Baptist pastors, I learned an invaluable lesson, not only for Baptists and Muslims, but for our world at large: We have way more in common than we think.
As with any new relationship, we started with the basics — food and drink. One of the conference leaders joked that we should begin each of our sessions with Baptist/Muslim food, like casseroles and baklava. Why not? Food bonds us together as human beings. In fact, American University in Washington, D.C. recently offered a conference based on something called gastro-diplomacy, a field in which food is studied as a tool for global reconciliation work.
Drink is a little more complicated. Theoretically, both Baptists and Muslims abstain from alcohol. In reality, only a part of my Baptist family has held to the drinking restriction. The rest of us have secretly slipped off the wagon. It’s like the old joke: “What’s the difference between an Episcopalian and a Baptist? The Episcopalian will speak to you in the liquor store.”
We share deeper theological beliefs too. Baptists and Muslims pray to the same God; where we differ is how we pray. As an ordained pastor, I don’t think I’m off base in saying that most Christians have an inconsistent prayer life. We pray at meals (maybe) or when we’re in church or when we need something. The most disciplined of us might even take a few minutes in the morning and evening to pray. Alternatively, my new Muslim friends pray five times a day, every day. It doesn’t matter if life is good or bad, whether they need something or not. They stop throughout their day, turn their focus to God and pray.
We also share common family stories. According to our holy books, Baptists and Muslims are basically cousins. Anyone who has read Genesis knows that all human beings originate from the same creator — via Adam and Eve. We also know that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all derive from the same ancestry: father Abraham.
Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, took different paths in life, with Isaac’s descendants forming the tribes of Judaism and Ishmael becoming the father of Islam. Later Christianity (the first cousin) spun off the family tree of Isaac/Judaism and became its own path.
This is why both the Bible and the Quran include the stories of Abraham, Moses, Mary and Jesus. Yes, you read right ... Jesus is honored in the Quran. These are not just Christian stories, but shared family stories honored by both religions.
One of the more troubling commonalities is that both Christianity and Islam have produced religious extremists. We read about al-Qaida almost daily, but let’s not forget that Christians have violent extremists too, as you’ll see if you google white supremacists, KKK, abortion bombings, Christian militia and/or Nazi.
But let’s get back to what we do that’s good. Baptists and Muslims both share a faith-based responsibility to love our neighbors and care for the downtrodden. One of the most powerful stories shared at our gathering was from the fall of 2016 after Hurricane Matthew devastated the South. Methodist workers, later joined by Baptists, Lutherans, Mennonites and Presbyterians, flocked to the area. Then a new helping hand appeared: Muslim architects, builders and engineers from the Islamic Relief Effort traveled from all over the United States to these tiny, remote southern towns to help the people rebuild. To paraphrase one resident whose home was saved by the workers, it doesn’t matter what religion they are, to me they are a blessing.
In the end, we realized at our gathering that it doesn’t matter whether people are Baptist, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, we all share the same struggles. We all worry about having enough money to support our families. We all worry about aging or fighting cancer. We all worry about what the future holds for our children.
This week, when you see or read about a person of a different religion or race or ethnicity, ask yourself: If we sat down in my living room over, say, a casserole and baklava, what would we talk about? What do we share?
Better yet, take the “if” out and actually invite someone of a different path to join you in conversation. Ask questions. Be curious. You may be surprised by your common humanity.
— A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is a nationally known speaker, preacher and author specializing in the healing power of humor. Contact her through her website, www.SusanSparks.com