Interfaith cooperation was the last thing on my mind.
Having grown up in a conservative Baptist church, studied in an evangelical seminary and served as an American Baptist missionary in the predominantly Christian countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, I really never gave much thought to what relationships with people of other faiths might look like.
I mostly lived in a world where everybody either was a Christian or had an excuse not to be one. But nobody ever challenged the basic teachings of Christianity.
That changed in 2010 when my wife and I relocated to Aurora, Colorado, one of the most ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse cities in the United States.
For the first time in my life, I found myself interacting with people who operated from a totally different worldview, for whom the Christian worldview was not even on their map.
That year was when the so-called “ground zero mosque controversy” arose. And I found myself experiencing a disconnect between the demonization of Muslims in the headline news and my own experience with Muslim students in my classroom.
In class after class, I noticed that my top students were Muslims – hard-working immigrants and model citizens, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps much like my own immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents.
But this was hardly the image of Muslims that I saw portrayed in the media.
As the school year wore on, the ground zero mosque controversy escalated. When U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY), then chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, convened hearings on the radicalization of U.S. Muslims, the words of Martin NiemÃ¶ller began to roll through my mind: “First they came for the communists, then they came for the Jews…”
Long story short, I became an advocate for Muslim students and, eventually, students of all faiths on my campus.
For the past seven years, I have organized panel discussions and guest lectures, field trips to local houses of worship, interfaith community service projects and a student delegation to the Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago.
The recent third national Baptist-Muslim Dialogue in Green Lake, Wisconsin, has given me the opportunity and tools to build on this previous work and deepen my understanding of what interfaith cooperation can accomplish.
Each morning, we Baptists led the devotions and shared our practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to our Muslim brothers and sisters.
And each evening, the Muslims led us in prayer and shared with us their practices of ablutions and fasting.
These sessions served both to acquaint me with Muslim spiritual practices and to deepen my appreciation and understanding of my own Baptist spirituality.
While I have long known that religious liberty is a pillar of the Baptist faith, I was reminded that Baptist pioneers like John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, Isaac Backus and John Leland didn’t fight just for my religious freedom.
They fought for the religious freedoms of everyone, including “heretics, Turks [as Muslims were called in the 17th century] and Jews.”
But I also learned that Muslims – just like Baptists – have their own heritage of religious liberty that predates ours by nearly 1,000 years.
Standing in a tradition of religious liberty that dates back to the seventh century Charter of Medina and was reaffirmed as recently as the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration, many U.S. Muslims today are advocating for the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
Like most conferences, the real value was not in the content of the formal sessions themselves (which, in this case, was superb), but in the informal dialogue that took place in between sessions, over the dinner table, and has continued well beyond the shuttle ride back to the airport.
While interfaith dialogue can be valuable, it is all too often just clergy of different faiths getting together, patting each other on the back and congratulating ourselves on how inclusive we are.
Mitch Randall, executive director of EthicsDaily.com, and Imad Enchassi, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, challenged this paradigm.
They shared some of the practical ways that they, and their congregations, have built relationships with one another over the past decade and how they have worked together for the common good of their respective communities in Oklahoma City.
Inspired by the example of Randall, Enchassi and many others whom I met at the conference, I plan to reach out to Denver-area Muslim colleagues to explore ways we might be more intentional about dialogue and, ultimately, collaborating together to make a difference in our communities.
Jesus teaches us that we, as Christians, are to be “salt and light” in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). In my religiously diverse community, the best way that I can be “salt and light” is through interfaith cooperation.
Daniel Schweissing, a former American Baptist missionary, currently teaches English as a second language at the Community College of Aurora near Denver, Colorado, where, among other things, he actively promotes interfaith cooperation.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the third Baptist-Muslim Dialogue held April 16-19 in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Photos from the event are available here. A series of video interviews from the dialogue will be published here.
The previous articles in the series are:
What Happens When Baptists, Muslims Work Together by Richard P. Olson
Baptist-Muslim Dialogue Opened My Eyes to Interfaith Engagement by Trisha Miller Manarin
6 Factors That Brought Baptist, Muslim Leaders Together by Rob Sellers
Bearing Witness to Confront Negative Stereotypes about Islam by Drew Herring
Why This Baptist Pastor Says, ‘I’m With Muslims’ by Jonathan Davis
How One Teacher Educated Kids About Muslim Neighbors by Carol Stagner
When Spiritual Siblings Unite for the Common Good by Mitch Randall