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Feb 28, 2017 | The Rev. Jerald Hyche

St. James, Conroe, Embraces Interfaith Conversation

L to R: Colleen Hyche; Erum Chisty; the Rev. Jerald Hyche; Dr. Mujtaba Ali-Khan; Vajih Khan, members of The Woodlands Mosque

Not everyone was open to the idea. One weekday morning in early February a parishioner arrived at the church office, visibly upset with what I first thought was a personal, pastoral matter. I closed the door, we sat down, and I invited her to tell me what was going on.

“Are you really going to let them come here?” she said.

“Let who come here?” I asked. 

“Those people,” she said. “Those Muslims.” 

I leaned back in my chair and let out what I’m sure was an audible sigh. Up to that moment, I had heard nothing in the way of opposition to our Sunday morning series, Faithful Neighbors – A Christian-Muslim Conversation. Yes, I had noticed a few parishioners lingering at the parish hall bulletin board, pointing at the poster about the series with what seemed like looks of consternation. And, yes, I had detected a little anxiety in the voices of a couple of others when I mentioned that we had invited members of the local mosque as part of the forums. 

But not until this parishioner sat down in my study had I come face to face with such unconcealed contempt for the idea of Christians and Muslims getting together in one room to learn more about each other. 

That really was the original idea and primary goal of the series. Last fall, as Islam and other faith traditions found themselves under a blowtorch of political rhetoric leading up to Election Day, I wrestled with the same question many were asking – what to do about it? A quick online search revealed Masjid Al Ansar, or The Woodlands Mosque, and its leader, Mujtaba Ali-Khan, who immediately shared my enthusiasm for conversation between our faith communities. 

We began with several St. James parishioners and I attending an Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston “dinner dialog” at the mosque in October. From there, the Faithful Neighbors series was conceived as a way of generally – and gently – introducing the congregation to a conversation across faith traditions over three Sundays in February.

Matt Kahn, associate director of Interfaith Relations at IMGH, kicked off the series by describing the kaleidoscope of religious diversity in the Houston area. In the second session, Ali-Khan and other members of The Woodlands Mosque came the following week to give us an up-close and personal look at Islam. The Rev. Gregory Han, director of Interfaith Relations at IMGH, then wrapped up the series by suggesting our next approach to interfaith ministry.

The woman who visited my study in early February did not attend, but more than 100 other parishioners did, open to gaining not just new information, but also a new perspective on how we live together with our Islamic neighbors.

“There are many overlapping beliefs between these religions,” parishioner Dennis Hough said. “They don't think of us as the ‘infidel.’ I think that more opportunities like this at our church or their mosque would continue to break down barriers.”

Parishioner Martha Ready said she enjoyed “learning the facts about Islam and what it really is and not just what you hear from non-Muslims who don’t really know what they are talking about.”

Most agreed, however, that the series was only a beginning.

“I personally would be interested to have meetings with Muslims to explore their feelings and perceptions of radicalized Islam,” Randy Moravec said. “Do they see this as a problem? If so, what do they think needs to be done to counter the trend? How can Christians and Muslims work together to change this dangerous ideology?” 

A newly formed Interfaith Commission at St. James is planning more gatherings in hopes of answering those questions and more as the parish nurtures its relationship with its Muslim neighbors as well as other faith traditions – perhaps even other Christian denominations! 

“There are many misunderstandings between people of different religions,” Vestry member Mike Flake said. “We just need to open ourselves up so we can learn together how to get along.”

The Rev. Jerald Hyche is Rector of St. James the Apostle, Conroe.

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