On a frigid morning last week about 100 people — Christians and Muslims — gathered at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church in Ladue to talk about a letter.
Signed by 138 Muslim leaders from a wide spectrum of major Islamic traditions around the world and titled, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” the letter was sent to more than two dozen Christian leaders in October.
Pope Benedict XVI’s name was first on the list. That’s because a year earlier, in a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, the pope quoted a 14th-century emperor who said Islam’s influence was evil and was spread by violence.
The lecture offended many of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, inciting violence among some extremists, and in the weeks after the lecture, the pope said the quote “unfortunately lent itself to be misunderstood” and called for more dialogue among religions. He said he had a “deep respect” for Islam.
“A Common Word” is a compendium of verses from the Qur’an and the Bible that support what the letter’s authors call “the two greatest commandments” — love of God and love of neighbor.
“Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue,” the authors wrote. “Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.”
Since October, 80 more Muslim leaders and scholars have signed “A Common Word,” and in November, Benedict agreed to meet with some of the signatories. That meeting has yet to be finalized.
The press has not covered “A Common Word” with the same zeal with which it covered the fallout from Benedict’s Regensburg lecture. Despite that, there was a large turnout at Ladue Chapel last week. Of the 100 or so attendees, about 80 were Christians interested in the letter and anxious to hold a dialogue with their Muslim neighbors.
Sister Paula Hartwig of St. Louis said she’s always been “enriched by learning about other religions” and that “it’s critical to get to know people as people, by sharing meals and sharing conversation.”
The group heard presentations by the Rev. Marsha Snulligan-Haney, a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, and Sheikh Mohammed Nur Abdullah, the former imam of the Daar-ul-Islam mosque in west St. Louis County, and one of the original 138 signatories of “A Common Word.”
“We are from one soul, no one can deny that,” Abdullah said. “We breathe the same air, eat the same food, drink the same water. We are all created by God. He made us different, but only he knows the reason why.”
Abdullah said dialogue is needed among the mainstream practitioners of both faiths. “There are extremists, yes,” he said. “But those of us in the mainstream, if we don’t come together, their voices will be louder. The answer is not violence, but talking.”
And talk they did. After Abdullah’s presentation, the Muslims in the room split themselves up to sit among their Christian neighbors. Paper bags on each of the tables held questions such as, “Can a woman become an imam?” and “What is your favorite religious holiday and why?” Table-mates picked the questions randomly for discussion.
The conversations ranged far and wide over the next 45 minutes. Is ignorance at the heart of most Americans’ misunderstanding of Islam? What is a fatwa? Is the God of Christianity really the same God as Islam’s Allah? Are there different streams of Islam besides Sunni and Shia?
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Gul Shah said to the Rev. Elizabeth Dick, who was sitting at her table, “What motivated you to become a pastor?”
After a panel discussion, people called out ways to keep the conversation going in the future. Feed the hungry together. Bring other faith groups to the table. Draft talking points on Islam for pastors and Sunday school teachers.
At the end of the day, Ahmet Karamustafa, a professor of Islamic history and religious studies at Washington University, said the meeting had been as important — if not more so — than the letter that inspired it.
“Ultimately, this is the level that makes the biggest difference,” he said.
Haney agreed. “On a local level, people are still sorting out the issues,” she said. “Settings like this are valuable so neighbors can come together, as religious people, and tackle those issues together.”
Abdullah said that while he wished there had been a larger Muslim presence, he thought the gathering was “what we need as a community.”
As people began to put on their coats to brave the bitter wind chill, many shook hands and pledged to follow up. Everyday people of faith, strangers who had come together to examine a letter, had become friends.