Peace for Peoria

On Monday night, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Peace for Peoria, a town hall Q & A event at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. I got to sit on a panel that included a Catholic, an Imam, a Rabbi and two Protestant pastors in front of a crowd at least 700 strong.

We were there to talk about how we can all work for peace, how all of us can have strong beliefs and still make space for each other, how we can have meaningful friendships with people of different faith and cultural traditions.  We also wanted to specifically address the irrational fear of Islam that seems to pervade our culture right now.

It was a breathtaking event. From what I could tell, there was great energy in the room. People seemed to be leaning into the conversation and many people were still hanging around the theater lobby talking nearly an hour and a half after the panel discussion was over.

This post is a collection of thoughts and impressions, two days after the event. I’ll be writing one more post in this series on interfaith conversations about an idea that emerged to me during the panel discussion. It’s written. I hope to have it edited and posted by Friday.

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The thought that occurred to me over and over again on Monday night was that this event was pretty unique. I don’t know of other conversations quite like this one, happening on a town-wide basis, anywhere else in the country. Part of it is because of Peoria’s size. Before the panel discussion we had several of the CEOs of the largest companies in Peoria talking about religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their workplaces, and the Mayor ended the night with a few comments. (I was also told that most of the city council was in attendance as well, although I haven’t confirmed that.)

Key civic leaders, business leaders gathering to listen to clergy talk about faith? In 2016 America? That just doesn’t happen!

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud of our city.

The other reason for the uniqueness of this event is that, behind the scenes, there are actual friendships between those of us who were on the stage Monday night. We’re blessed in this community to have an Imam like Imam Mufti and a Rabbi like Rabbi Bogard who are so open to conversation.

And special props to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Stephen McKinney-Whitaker of United Presbyterian for being the catalyst for making Monday’s event happen.

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If I had any disappointment, it was that events like the one on Monday are largely an exercise in preaching to the choir. People who affirm interfaith conversation and cooperation are more likely to attend an event like this one. The people who are most ignorant of Islam, the people who have the most fear, the people who most need to witness peaceful conversation between religions aren’t likely to attend this kind of event. Which is really too bad. We talked fairly in depth about important questions people have: Do we worship the same God? What about the violence of Islam? Don’t Muslims just want to convert us all and institute Sharia law?

But at the same time, even preaching to the choir, it was affirming to me.

My background, my roots are in an evangelical Christianity that would most likely NOT attend. The religious context I grew up in would largely see Monday’s event as some kind of selling out of the gospel. So it was personally affirming to me to be engaged in the conversation and to receive affirmation from people who attended that this conversation is the good work.

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And finally, I want to recap one thing that was said during the discussion. The first question was, “Do we all worship the same God?” and I want to recap highlights of that discussion, because I think, at least to some people, it’s the most important question.

When people ask that, it’s often a red herring. Regardless of how I answer, as a Christian I’m compelled to love. And to quote Pastor Stephen in his concluding remarks, “Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.” (One of my favorite quotes of the night, even though I’ve heard him say it before!) And so while I said that to some people it’s the most important question, personally, it’s just not that important to me.

But, to answer the question you have to first answer the question “what do you mean by same?” So it quickly descends into a matter of linguistics. Of course, all of us on the stage have different ideas about the God we worship. None of us prescribe to a lowest common denominator expression of our faith. I think we would all be insulted if someone said that inane thing that people sometimes say, “All the religions pretty much teach the same thing.”

We don’t.

Same doesn’t mean identical.

But at least among the Abrahamic faiths, we have what Yale Professor Miroslav Volf calls “sufficiently similar” understandings of God that enable us to have meaningful conversations. (Here’s a link to a discussion about his book Allah: A Christian Response.) And in a Twitter exchange with Northern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Scot McKnight, Volf says that if Evangelical Christians insist that they don’t worship a “sufficiently similar” God to Muslims, then they also need to apply the same logic to their understand of Jews. This is a trade-off that I think very few Evangelicals want to take.

But, in the conversation that we’re having in our community with Christians, Muslims and Jews, “sufficiently similar,” is enough at least to get the conversation going. “The God of Abraham,” is enough common ground that we can at least talk together. And, surely we can work together for peace in our community!

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So, anyway, these are my impressions. So proud of my city. So proud to be a part of this event.

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Know Islam. Know Peace (in Peoria)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.”
— Jesus

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Several months ago, I heard a report from the BBC that vandalism crimes against mosques in America were on the rise. You don’t have to be an avid follower of the news to know that anti-Muslim rhetoric is getting increasing airplay in certain sectors of American society. In fact, just in the past few weeks, in a neighboring city, one man caused an uproar when he posted silhouettes in his yard of a man holding a gun to another man on his knees wearing a turban. In news reports, he defended his lawn decorations by quoting the Bible and Jesus.

Ugh.

Given the rising rhetoric, in December I finally took the initiative and sent an email to one of the local imams: “Hi. We’ve never met, but given the current anti-Muslim climate of this country and the mandate of my religion to be a peacemaker, I just wanted to say that I’m your friend. Let’s meet for lunch sometime.”

Within about a week I found myself having a long lunch with Imam Kamil Mufti, during which he challenged me to use my voice, to speak up for peace, to educate people to think differently about Islam. And he told me about his idea to have an open house at his mosque sometime in the next couple months.

Tonight was that open house.  The event was called “Know Islam. Know Peace.”

I’ve never been so proud of my community.

Local news is reporting that in excess of 700 people showed up at the Islamic Foundation of Peoria. I, and nearly everyone I talked to at the event, was blown away by the number of people who turned out to show support for Muslims in our community.

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I’m writing this just a couple hours after the event and here are a couple of my impressions:

First, I was blown away by the hospitality shown by the Muslim community. From the minute we arrived, they were the ever-gracious hosts, welcoming us, giving tours, answering questions, circulating the aisles handing out water during speeches and then feeding all of us amazing Afghani food. Just this past Sunday, I was teaching our church out of Luke 22 and one of the things we noted is that Jesus defined leadership as those who serve. I saw that lived out tonight. I felt honored and humbled to be the recipient of their kindness.

Another impression had to do with the speeches. The room was full of civic leaders, religious leaders and politicians and the dais was filled with the same. When I first saw the long list of those who would be giving speeches I thought to myself, “Oh no, this is going to be a long night.” But I was so caught up in the event, that I forgot to look at my watch until about 75 minutes in, just before Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Anshai Emeth took the stage to finish out the evening. Nearly all the speakers had something significant to add to the evening.

And finally, it struck me tonight that Jesus’ words, – “Blessed are the peacemakers” – don’t have any qualifiers. He didn’t say, “Blessed are the Christian peacemakers,” or the “American peacemakers,” or anything else. He just said that those who make peace are blessed. So, tonight, I was struck that the Muslim community is blessed. And Imam Mufti is particularly blessed I know others have worked with him, inviting those they know, but Imam Mufti and his community are the ones who reached out to build a bridge for peace.

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When Mayor Ardis stood up tonight to give his speech, he was visibly moved, as I think many of us were. I know I had goosebumps throughout the night. And he said to us, “I don’t know that I exactly have the words to describe what I feel.” He went on to talk about how proud he was of our community – both the Muslims in Peoria for hosting the event and also of everyone who showed up at a mosque – many of us for the first time in our lives.

I said it at the top, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this community. It was beautiful to see people of all kinds of faiths supporting, honoring and defending each other’s rights to religious expression and being peacemakers.

There may be a world full of ugly, ignorant anti-Muslim rhetoric “out there,” but in tiny Peoria, IL, there are at least 700 of us who will stand up for peace, stand up for love and refuse to demonize “the other.”

I think this is the way of Jesus.

(To learn more, go to peaceforpeoria.com)

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