Unlikely marriage on the city’s Southside
When I told a friend I was going to a meeting of white Christians and black Muslims, he got all excited. He thought I was headed to a Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier rematch,” Imam Mikal Saahir of the NurAllah mosque told some 200 attendees at the Midwestern Focolare gathering, “Encounters in the Spirit of Universal Brotherhood,” held at Martin University this past Saturday. “I’m afraid he’s going to be disappointed because we are here as family, sharing common beliefs and love for one another.”
In keeping with the theme of the day, “We Are Family,” sentiments about the power of love, shared experiences and common values to unify disparate peoples in brother- and sisterhood were echoed by speakers and musicians from all walks of life and races, Muslim and Christian, including the keynote speaker, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, of the Muslim American Society (MAS).
Imam Mohammed, along with Chiara Lubich, an Italian woman, founder of Focolare, an international Catholic movement dedicated to promoting unity among Christians and between individuals of different faiths, initiated the Focolare-MAS dialogues in 1997. In May of that year, Mohammed invited Lubich to speak at the Malcom Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, telling his followers, “Listen to this woman, she has something to teach us.”
“My hope was that I would get in a position with the Vatican and with Chiara Lubich that would allow us to bring our followings together in one place, in peace and unity,” Imam Mohammed said. “I wanted the world to see that Muslims and Catholics can live in peace. I wanted to show them the spirit of human excellence in God creating an agency to make the world a better place. I wanted them to see that Muslims are part of the Focolare movement too. That way, Christians would become better Christians, and Muslims would become better Muslims, and the world would be a better place for all souls.”
Since 1997, MAS and Focolare have been holding local, regional and national gatherings, such as this weekend’s meeting, which was the Sixth Annual Midwestern Encounter.
“We aren’t a traditional dialogue with theological discussions,” explained Julie Mundell, local Focolare coordinator. “We are more a dialogue of life — we share experiences, coming together to spend time together, share food together, to break down barriers and build mutual love and unity.”
Imam Mohammed and Lubich, Mundell said, believed that Islam and Christianity had a lot in common, including a love of harmony and a belief in the brotherhood of all humanity. “It wasn’t so obvious to the followers until the leaders brought the people together,” Mundell said. In the six years that the local group has been meeting, Mundell said that “true friendships have been built and the communities have come to love one another.”
Marco DiSalvo, the Midwestern director of the Focolare movement, spoke to the audience about the importance of love from the Christian perspective. It is not enough to love one another, DiSalvo said, “We must love first. And this is sometimes hard, but we must reach out the first hand.” He also emphasized the importance of “loving a person the way he or she would want to be loved, not the way we want to love them.”
Imam Saahir talked about ordinary miracles. “We think of miracles as being some big, unexplainable, mysterious thing, but today we are experiencing a miracle of daily life. Two peoples meet, come together and now we are seeing love growing, together. That is a daily miracle.”
Imam Ronald Shaheed, from Milwaukee, Wis., took Saahir’s message a step farther. “To those who cannot get beyond nationality, American and Italian leaders are showing how people of different nations can come together. To those who cannot get beyond race, we are showing how people different skin colors, how blacks and whites, can come together.
“To those who cannot get beyond gender, we are showing how men and women can come together. To those who cannot get beyond religion, we are showing how Christians and Muslims can come together. We are showing that people can come together with no thought for nationality, race, gender or religion.”
Mohammed closed out the day’s activities with the keynote speech. “When we look at what is happening in this world, we realize these meetings between Focolare and MAS are so important. They are a significant part of the international, worldwide movement to make the world a better place for all souls,” he said. “The fact is, most people in the world are religious. If we can show them a picture of religion that brings people together, that will help them reclaim the notion of themselves and others as a valuable creation, it can help them reclaim the notion of religion as a force for good, and help them come from a bad disposition towards faith to a good disposition towards faith.”