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.”


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?


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.

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.


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.


Election 2016: A Tale of Two Photos -Rev. Joseph L. Morrow, Campus Engagement Manager for Interfaith Youth Core

ThomasLinda sittingOur next post on the subject of last week’s election comes from Rev. Joseph L. Morrow – Engagement Manager for Interfaith Youth Core. Focused on the very real pain many US citizens are feeling after the election of Donald J. Trump, Pastor Morrow’s post is a reminder that fear need never shake our faith, nor get in the way of being able to see the other, no matter how much the ‘other’ may be problematic to us. Read, comment, and share, friends. Let’s keep the conversation going!

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

The flourishing of a diverse democracy is incredibly important to me both personally and vocationally. As a Presbyterian pastor I work for Interfaith Youth Core, a civic organization working with US colleges and universities to make religious diversity a source of social strength, rather than division. I also belong to a family and have friends who represent a broad cross section of American life. So in the midst of this contentious and fear ridden election cycle, I was struck by two photos that succinctly capture my thoughts both before and after the results came in.

First photo, Korean American Resource and Cultural Center 11/8/2016

The first photo is one I took early evening on Election Day, before the votes rolled in. I was at an election watch party with my wife and young child held at the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (KRCC) where Korean American seniors who had volunteered to make calls to get out the vote throughout the day were gathered with staff and youth volunteers. As youth from diverse cultural backgrounds played in the office basement with my daughter Ella, several of us of diverse cultures, languages, religions, and ages, huddled around the TV, munching on lukewarm pizza and Korean food. An impromptu concert began and we suddenly found ourselves serenaded by one volunteer’s stirring rendition of the national anthem played on harmonica. I snapped a photo to capture the endearing moment.

It’s a scene so reminiscent of others I’ve experienced in sundry times and places throughout my life, from my neighborhood, to my school, to my college campus. This is the America I love. A place where people of from all walks of life are comfortable and encouraged to share their gifts with one another. A place where sweet music can be made that warms the heart and encourages the soul. This is the America so many of my forebears toiled and sacrificed to make possible. Despite the waves of despair and frustration, I will continue to fight and struggle for its survival. Wherever I see our government or citizenry safeguarding this image of America I will lend my support and wherever I see them denigrate it I will lend my opposition.

Second Photo: At work the next day, 11/9/2016.

The second image comes from my workplace the day after the election. Because we are an interfaith organization comprised of staff from diverse religious and non-religious traditions, our office has an interfaith room in which we are free to gather for prayer, reflection or meditation. On that day, many of us in the organization who in some way identify with the Christian tradition gathered to pray and read scripture. While we were gathered inside, one of our colleagues, Prerna Abbi, who identifies as a Secular Hindu, noticed the pile of shoes outside the room. Removing our shoes  before entering that reflective space is an almost instinctual custom we observe in the office out of respect to our Muslim and Hindu colleagues who require it in order to purify the space. But in that moment, our collection of shoes meant so much more. For Prerna those shoes were a sign of hope and solidarity. And looking at her photo I can understand why.

Each pair of those shoes represents someone who made the time and space to hold a vulnerable nation in their heart. In that room, we expressed our grief and hope, we prayed for strength to those living in fear, wisdom for those with newfound power, and courage for those who must humane ways resist. Whoever you may be in this land of ours, I hope it is heartening to know a few dedicated people gathered on that day to pray for your individual and our collective well-being in a time of deep fear and uncertainty.

Huddled in our worship, liturgy and prayer, it is not often that as Christians we get to glimpse the effect of our faith from the outside. Many times we are not aware of our spiritual imprint, but for me the sight of the shoes of the prayerful was a reminder that our presence and our commitment matters. And it prompts an important questions for US Christians in the season ahead:

In this uncertain and fearful hour, what imprint will our prayers make on the lives of others? To what purpose will we direct the liturgy of our everyday existence?

Photo Credit, Andrew W. Rennie.

Most people I know are grieving the election results, some I know are satisfied or more optimistic.

Either way, what gives me hope and life in this moment are thinking about the promise that is captured in these two striking images, which represent so much of what I hold fast to about my country and my Christian faith. Those promises stand before the horizon as destinations toward which I will step forward with pilgrim shoes.

If I may riff on a line from the prophet Isaiah (52:7):

‘Beautiful are the shoes that bring good news! Who proclaim peace, who bring glad tidings.’

bio.jpg Joseph L. Morrow works for the national non-profit Interfaith Youth Core and is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Chicago for the PC(USA). Joe received his M.Div from North Park Theological Seminary, studied at McCormick Theological Seminary and received his B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University. He is a native of Chicago where he lives with his wife Sung Yeon and their daughter Ella.