Listening and Change – Michael Markwell

Linda Thomas at CTS eventDespite even our sincerest efforts to the contrary, bias easily bleeds into and warps our best intentions and actions. This is certainly true in today’s post, where Michael Markwell reflects on the difference between earlier efforts at Muslim/Christian dialogue that he’s done as opposed to a recent experience. Part of my class, “Identity and Difference: The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Sexuality,”  makes another wonderful addition to our recent conversations on intersectionality on the blog, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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A few weeks ago I got the privilege of accompanying a group from my church to an Islamic Mosque. The visit to the mosque followed a multi-week study based on the book My Neighbor is Muslim. The first part of the study was a look in on what we as Lutherans believe, How can we understand our neighbors faith if we do not remind ourselves and make sure we are firm in what we believe.

This look at our own faith then allowed for us to look at the beliefs and teachings of Islam. The journey through this study was an important opportunity for our congregation. Mainly white middle-class in a south suburb of Chicago, the majority of the middle aged participants in the study have had little interaction with Muslims. The study was capped off with a trip to a local mosque. This was my first time to a mosque, we attended mid-day prayers, then following the prayers leaders of the mosque meet with us. They provided us with a space to ask questions, about them or about their faith.

Because how can we love our neighbors without knowing what they believe?

Every couple of weeks I see very similar posts on social media. The post typically involves a snapshot of a homework assignment and a letter that a parent wrote to the teacher/principal/school board. There is always a question on the homework assignment that ask something along the lines of “What are the five pillars of Islam.” The response from the parent is usually rage and anger:

“How dare you teach my kid about Islam and Jihad, stop trying to brainwash our kids, there are no assignments on Christianity?!”

How are we to love our neighbors if we refuse to even understand their beliefs? How can we serve our neighbors if we don’t know their needs?

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I can remember back to times when I was in school and studied world religion, including Islam. I was a junior in high school taking world history and we studied the basic principles and practices of all major religions. When I was in college, as part of my history degree, I took a class in the history of Christian and Muslim relations. Again we started the class by learning the basic beliefs and practices of each religion. Refusal to learn about the practices of another religion is not wanting to protect children from influences of other religions, it is a refusal to sit at the same table.

Yet it surprises me that at least on the two occasions I remember studying Islam neither time did we have a Muslim speaker or visit a mosque. Both previous times I learned about Islam the information was presented in a very informative matter, but it seems odd to me to not have had the opportunity to learn firsthand.

I got a serious lesson in hospitality when we visited the mosque. Before we left for the mosque we made sure our group had eaten. We visited the Mosque during Ramadan, and we were not expecting any refreshments as they were observing the fast. The last thing I would have expected was to be served a full meal during the day during a fasting holiday. But our gracious hosts did just this, serving us pizza, there in the mosque they served us pizza. The children of one of the leaders stood there no more than 10 years old and served us, despite them not being able to eat.

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Boy preparing evening meals during Ramadan.

We were thanked for our approach and our willingness to listen to their stories. The leader of the mosque was grateful that we were going beyond what we hear about through the news. I had the opportunity to talk to a leader in a private conversation.

He said his prayer every day when he wakes up is that he won’t turn on the TV and see another terrorist attack. Each time there is an attack in the news he worries for his family, especially his children.

What I took away from the whole experience is the importance in our congregations and communities to encourage opportunities to learn in ways that challenge and break down our pre-conceived notions. I had some concern when we first went to the mosque, concern that members of our congregation who may have come in with preconceived notions, even following our study would be rude or insensitive. But to my relief the experience of having the opportunity to meet a Muslim and hear their story, separated what they have been feed from Fox News. The power of stories continues to amaze me in the work that it does to educate and to break down walls.

We have the power to listen to stories. Unfortunately only one story of Muslims gets told in the news. That is the story of ‘radical Islamic terrorists.’ However if we took the time to listen to the stories of Muslims we would learn that they are professionals like us, they are parents like us, they go about life in similar ways. There are tons of ways to access stories of individuals from other religions, cultures, economic backgrounds, races, and genders.

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As a white, cis-gender, anglo-saxon, protestant, married, heterosexual, male of middle-class upbringing, I feel that it is my responsibility to allow others to tell their stories, and when I cannot, to do the best I can to tell them on their behalf.

We cannot allow single narratives to continue to dominate our society and shape the way we view other cultures.


pic.jpgIn addition to being the Youth Ministry Coordinator at Shepherd of the Hill Lutheran Church in  Lockport, IL, Michael Markwell has just completed the first year of his M.Div. studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Prior to beginning his studies he was a school teacher, camp counselor, and dorm resident assistant.

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One thought on “Listening and Change – Michael Markwell

  1. bringdal

    Amen! I have the blessing of living in a very diverse neighborhood, and have daily opportunities to catch myself in my entrenched biases… and I’ve had the joy of making friends with some of the Muslim kids on my block, who will squeal over a worm in the garden just like any of the other kids. Slowly but surely, the Spirit is healing my heart. Thanks for this, Mike!

    Like

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