Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Won't You Be My Neighbor? Friendly Meetings between Catholics and Muslims Can Make It a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for All God's Children

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Won't You Be My Neighbor? Friendly Meetings between Catholics and Muslims Can Make It a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for All God's Children

Article excerpt

A couple of Muslim children--fourth- or fifth-graders probably--squirmed and whispered to each other in the middle of midday prayer at the Muslim-American Youth Academy (MAYA) in Dearborn, Michigan.

Teachers from St. Paul Catholic School in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan were not surprised. "They're just like our students," they commented. During their visit to MAYA and the Islamic Center of America, St. Paul students, too, found that the Muslim children are not unlike them: Not only do they all have school uniforms, but they all worship the God of Abraham.

"Some of the students had the idea that Muslims were terrorists, and there was some fear. That was completely gone after the trip," says St. Paul principal Mary Miller. The interfaith field trip was short, but in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's controversial comments on Islam at the University of Regensburg last September, hearing a presentation on Islam and witnessing the Muslim prayer were critical learning experiences for both children and adults.

"We felt that we reached out and in our own little way built a bridge in a world that needs bridges built," says Anne McBrien, one of about 18 parents on the field trip.

Across the country, the children of Abraham--young and old--are coming together in dialogue, whether they seek to develop tolerance, relationships, their own faith, or even transform the world.

First-hand experience

Even though Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim community in the country, St. Paul is on the other side of Detroit. Still, MAYA students are visiting St. Paul in January, and Miller and Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, pastor of St. Paul on the Lake Parish and the ecumenical and interfaith officer for the Archdiocese of Detroit, hope the children will be able to talk over cookies. Some St. Paul parishioners also have asked Halfpenny if they could have an adult trip to the mosque.

But the distance will likely keep the McBrien family from future dialogue. Even so, visiting the mosque at least helped teach her children tolerance and created positive images of Muslims that will stay with them, and her, forever, McBrien says. "You can read about something or see it on TV, but to really be somewhere left a lasting impression," she says.

Not all St. Paul students learned these lessons, however, and the problem keeping them away from the mosque was much larger than distance. Parents of about 12 children chose not send them on the field trip, fearing for their children's safety after some Muslims reacted violently to the pope's Regensburg address in other parts of the world.

"It was controversial," says McBrien, admitting that she had her doubts about the trip, which was planned before the pope's comments. "There were definitely parents who were more apprehensive than I was. I just trusted that it was the right thing to do and it was."

Getting to know you

Negative stereotypes of Muslims can sometimes deter Catholics from seeking dialogue. A 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll found that 31 percent of people who don't know a Muslim personally would prefer not to have a Muslim neighbor. Among people who know a Muslim, however, only 10 percent feel that way. Face-to-face meeting, therefore, is essential to developing the relationships that eliminate prejudices.

"We've gotten to know Muslim women on a one-to-one basis. They have the same values as we do," says Thelma Walker, a participant in the Muslim-Catholic Women's Dialogue--a partnership between the Milwaukee archdiocese and the Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition.

Discussing their religions, along with everyday issues that all women share, at their monthly meetings has helped break down barriers, and Walker also sees the group as part of her spiritual development. "Everybody has wisdom. The more we interact with other people, the more we learn from their wisdom and they learn from ours," she says. …

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