He wasn’t someone I ever expected to meet in a church, let alone on Christmas Eve. But then again, I’d never before been part of a congregation so active in interfaith efforts.
Mohammed El-Farram, the imam of the Brantford, Ont., mosque, arrived at the neighbouring Sydenham Street United that evening with a Christmas gift for our congregation. His very presence made me aware of how faithful Muslims and faithful Christians hold so much in common.
As a United Church member, I had delighted in our denomination’s efforts toward interfaith understanding. We’ve been responsible for some very fine statements and study documents, including Mending the World, about global ecumenism and interfaith dialogue; Bearing Faithful Witness, about Jewish-United Church relations; and That We May Know Each Other, on Muslim-United Church relations.
But this was a little different. I was witnessing for the first time what a shared commitment to peace and justice could look like on the ground. That Christmas Eve gave me a taste of what happens when a United Church congregation and a mosque join efforts to honour the Prince of Peace, about whom we sang that evening.
The story of Christmas is one of the things we share. It is told in both the Bible and the Qur’an. In the Muslim holy book, Jesus’ birth is miraculous and his purpose is to come to serve people. Sounds familiar.
Mohammed El-Farram loves Christmas, and he loves joining us at Christmas — and at Easter. Retelling the nativity story as written in the Qur’an, he absolutely bubbles: “It’s a beautiful story!” Mohammed once wrote an article for our city newspaper, the Brantford Expositor, about why he believes in Jesus Christ. “It brought me lots of comment and interaction at Tim Hortons,” he says.
The relationship between the Brantford mosque and Sydenham Street United inspires me. Mohammed and Rev. Barry Pridham support one another and give leadership together.
Neither is naive about nor insulated from the tensions that arise in communities such as ours. This small city in southwestern Ontario is home to people from many parts of the world with many points of view. Some exhibit disturbing anti-social behaviour. But these tensions seem only to further propel Barry and Mohammed to reach out and make way for the Prince of Peace.
Recently these two leaders attended a poverty-awareness day in the city, where they spoke about doing more to assist the poor — but first, accompanied by members of both congregations, they took a turn serving soup. In another joint effort, they will give a seminar at the local jail to help staff better understand the needs of the diverse prison community. And for several years, the mosque has partnered with our congregation in a Sunday supper program at which we serve a nourishing meal to well over 100 people weekly. Co-operative efforts have been made to help those outside our city, too, including relief for Prairie farmers in Canada and flood victims in Pakistan. The health of both the church and the mosque has improved through such efforts.
As Mohammed says, it’s deeply disturbing to hear of people killing one another because of differences of faith, when “thanks be to God, we can talk together, visit, have understanding, appreciate our humanness, reach out and work together, cherishing our brothers and sisters.”
Only recently did I learn that Mohammed’s history with The United Church of Canada began when he was 13 years old, when treated by Dr. Bob McClure in a Gaza hospital. He was reacquainted with McClure in 1969. By then, McClure was moderator and Mohammed was a nurse in Canada, having been trained at that same Gaza hospital.
Mohammed appreciated McClure’s way of looking at religion and remembers him saying, “I’m here not to convert you but to share my faith with you. I’m happy for you to be Muslim, but share your faith with me as I share my faith with you.” Mohammed goes on to say, “I don’t go to the church to convert people to Islam either, so there’s no problem. We know our purpose is to help. We are serving. I find it very rewarding.”
Barry and Mohammed are strong leaders of deep faith, working together. Their witness makes Christ’s birth, life and resurrection all the more real and miraculous.
I don’t now recall what it was that Mohammed brought to our congregation that Christmas Eve when I first met him. It doesn’t matter. His presence was the gift.
Mardi Tindal is the 40th moderator of The United Church of Canada
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