This past Sunday, Tree of Life Lutheran Church hosted a unique potluck dinner, one marked by great food, occasional laughter and meaningful conversation.
Alongside the scalloped potatoes and vegetable pizza were Tandoori chicken, goat biryani and samosa, a flavorful, potato-filled, flakey pastry. It was the inaugural gathering of the Islamic-Lutheran Taskforce of Central Pennsylvania, and participants eagerly shared their dishes and their traditions inside the church in Susquehanna Township.
The taskforce began after The Muslim Community of Central Pennsylvania invited local church leaders to the “United We Stand Against Hatred & Bigotry” event at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Harrisburg last March. Afterwards, Bishop James Dunlop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod reached out to Muslim leadership and asked how Lutherans and Muslims could collaborate.
“This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of interfaith gatherings to broaden our understanding of our respective faiths and the God we share,” said Rev. Dr. Martin Zimmann, pastor at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mechanicsburg.
The room buzzed with conversation among the 120 attendees, and people leaned in with interest to hear what others were saying.
One group discussed Islamic prayer and its required discipline of praying five times a day—before sunrise, at noon, before sunset, after sunset and before bedtime. The women, clothed in colorful hijabs, said that, with no public call to prayer, they use phone apps to help them remember the prescribed prayer times. They inquired about Christian prayer practices.
Conversations not only taught one another about differences, but also acknowledged similarities, most notably the group’s Abrahamic roots.
The Five Pillars of Islam (a belief in one God, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca) are akin to certain Christian concepts. Monotheistic Christianity encourages regular prayer, tithing and giving to the less fortunate. Catholicism embraces the discipline of fasting and abstaining from meat during Lent. Even the Muslim hijab—widely known as a head covering but that actually includes covering the body with loose-fitting garments—has a parallel in Christianity. Some women in Catholic and Anabaptist traditions wear hair coverings and dress modestly.
“For the most part, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples exist side by side, on the same block without any problems, and that’s a good thing,” said taskforce member Athar Aziz. “But what I have noticed is, despite the fact that we live close to each other, we don’t necessarily know a lot about each other.”
That ignorance, he said, can lead to misinformation, misunderstandings, fear and prejudice.
“In the light of information and understanding, I believe we can develop tolerance and friendship and cooperation,” he said.
Some of the conversation turned to presidential campaign rhetoric, which has caused concern among some Muslims living in the United States, as well as the recent threatening letter received by the Islamic Society of Greater Harrisburg. Despite this, women in the group shared that they have been treated well since the election. In fact, it seems people have gone out of their way to counter anti-Muslim sentiments by being kind to them, smiling, holding doors and even offering hugs, they said.
There was a sense of solidarity in the room, and Zimmann noted that, whatever the future may hold for Muslims in America, they will not stand alone.
Taskforce member Shahul Hemeed said he was happy that this event was happening.
“We can know each other and build a bond,” he said.
He added that Muslims and non-Muslims want the same thing— to work, raise their families and live peacefully.
“It’s important that we meet our neighbors, not just [listen to] the negativity that’s in the recent discourse,” said Joel Kroft of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Shiremanstown. “As Christians, we are called to know and care for our neighbors.”
Folks mingled long after the meal finished. Participants parted with hugs and handshakes and, like all good potlucks, went home with Styrofoam trays full of leftovers.
More importantly, they left with information, a new perspective and a few new friends.
Author: Susan Ryder