September 18 – September 26, 2018
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Out of the recent controversy over the proposed “building of mosque at ground zero,” (even that frequent description belies misunderstanding and misinformation), we hosted a community event titled “A Conversation on Islam and America: Our Fears, Our Faith, our Future together.” The conversation was co-sponsored by the Youth Council of Mecklenburg Ministries, which is a non-profit organization in Charlotte whose mission includes building bridges across different religious expressions. In our ten years as the pastors of Park Road Baptist Church there may never have been a program that elicited any more reaction – nor any better response than this. Convening the conversation at the conclusion of our mid-week fellowship supper, we had nearly 200 people join us from the community. And the spirit in that room was truly amazing. The 300+ people in the room were black and white, Baptist and Muslim and Unitarian and secular, representing varying degrees of education and socio-economic status – and the spirit of gratitude was absolutely palpable. Many of the Muslims in attendance thanked me, graciously, for giving this conversation a forum which was cast in open dialogue and a spirit of acceptance and eagerness to learn from one another.
Three panelists spoke to the crowd offering varying perspectives, but out of a common ground of faith and a common conviction of hope. An Imam, a Jewish professor, and a Baptist minister addressed the crowd as a means of beginning the conversation. Among those opening words were these, which I offered:
And [I am afraid] not of literal warfare, but… that as we devolve by a war of words, day by day we lose our essential humanity – because the talking heads and radio extremists, the paralyzed pulpits and polarized pundits, on left and right, have made it virtually impossible for Americans to dialogue any more. So it does my Baptist heart good to see this crowd. I can’t imagine a more hopeful sight for America, nor a more beautiful picture of faith, than a Baptist church full of Muslims, and Jews, and Unitarians and Catholics… talking, respectfully together, of our common faith and our common fate.
And I had an opportunity to remind the gathering that “talking, respectfully together, of our common faith,” is a Baptist virtue, bequeathed to us from our Baptist forebears. Listen to these words of Roger Williams:
There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon [this] – that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship's prayers of worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.
The founding father of all Baptists in America, for the sake of liberty of conscience, would have defended the right of Muslims in New York City, or Murfreesboro, Tenn. or Charlotte, N.C. to build a center for education or a mosque for worship. And I believe he would have reminded us of that divine word that comes in scripture, virtually every time God and human beings interact: Do not be afraid! We would do well to live by the freedoms of both of those words… and by his final refrain to the people of Providence: “I remain, studious of our common Peace and Liberty.” That end is a good beginning: Our common peace and liberty.
The spirit of Roger Williams’ “common peace and liberty” guided our conversation that night, and those in attendance left wiser and more informed, more accepting and humble because of a conversation framed in a spirit of true Baptist dialogue. At least a half-dozen of my Baptist congregants introduced me to a new Muslim friend (for many, a first Muslim friend). A handful had made plans to worship together. Though we have not engaged a follow-up conversation, the Imam and I agreed we would do so, next time at the Masjid.
Peace is possible. We just have to believe it. And we have to be willing to sit in the same room and listen to one another. Peace is possible. And our dialogue will make it so.
—Russ Dean and his wife, Amy Jacks Dean, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church, Charlotte, N.C. Park Road is a BPFNA Partner Congregation.