W.D. Mohammed and Chiara Lubich: What Friendship Can Do
In the last issue of Koinonia, I explained how the Focolare charism for unity contributes to ecumenism. Living this spirituality contributes to interreligious dialogue as well. By imitating Jesus’ experience of emptying himself out of love for us, we put aside our own perspective, thereby receiving and magnifying those true elements which the faithful of other traditions contribute.
These truths can be considered Seeds of the Word which are ultimately part of the Christian faith; it often happens, however, that other traditions develop and live such truths with greater attention, thereby helping us to penetrate our own tradition more deeply. I experienced that dialogue is also evangelization in the etymological sense of the word – offering the good news of the Gospel; this is because those Seeds of the Word are part of the fullness of Truth, the Word Himself. Furthermore, authentic dialogue requires reciprocity; my gift as a Christian dialogue partner is precisely my experience of living this Word, i.e. of living in union with the Father’s own Word.
Rather than writing in generalities, however, I thought it opportune to narrate my personal experience which is also a Focolare experience of interreligious dialogue in the U.S. While living in the Chicago Focolare community and studying as an undergrad in the early 70’s, I was intrigued by Malcolm X’s autobiography; in fact, I often ran by the Honorable Elijah Mohammed’s Chicago home in the morning, perceiving the possible distrust of the guards outside. I was surprised to learn in 1975 that Elijah Mohammed’s designated successor, his son Warith Deen Mohammed, was redirecting the former Nation of Islam to orthodox Sunni Islam.
Building Bridges of Dialogue
When I shared responsibility for the Focolare in the Midwest twenty years later, the international director of the movement’s interreligious dialogue encouraged us to contact a good Chicago imam she had met at a World Conference of Religions for Peace encounter in Copenhagen. Acknowledging the Focolare’s position at the forefront of the Church’s interfaith dialogue, Cardinal Keeler independently suggested in those days that we seek out this same imam. Only after his first visit to one of our homes in the Spring of 1996 did we realize that this humble imam was the same Warith Deen Mohammed who was then leading as many as 2 million African American Muslims.
After reading a biography of the Focolare’s foundress, Chiara Lubich, he asserted during his second visit that her insights about the unity of the human family were for everyone, not just for Christians. He stressed his own clear identity as a practicing Muslim, and asked us to confirm our Catholic identity; I understood that he was seeking authentic dialogue with faithful, convinced partners, not confusing syncretism or superficial irenism.
We were mildly surprised by his visit to our little town north of New York five months later – in the middle of his community’s annual national convention in White Plains. I was much more surprised a month later while I was in Italy, when a friend called me on behalf of Dr. John Borelli, then Associate Director of the U.S. bishops’ office for interreligious dialogue. He and Cardinal Keeler were accompanying Imam Mohammed to an audience with Pope John Paul II and they asked if we could arrange a reception for the little group at our center outside Rome. I worked out the details with Archbishop Fitzgerald, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the time. He accompanied the entire group to a beautiful evening of immersion in the history of what was then known as the Muslim American society and in the history of the Focolare Movement.
The Rewards of Risk-Taking
Although Chiara’s other commitments precluded her participation that evening, I told Imam Mohammed of her plan to visit the U.S. the following Spring. His face lit up as he contemplated arranging for her to speak to his community; he thought the Harlem mosque the most opportune venue. When I considered afterwards that he was
inviting a 77-year-old Catholic Italian woman whom he had not yet met personally, to speak to 3,000 of his followers, I realized that Imam Mohammed was a man who sincerely and faithfully tried to follow God, regardless of the possible human consequences.
It seemed an enormous risk; when Chiara entered that mosque’s prayer room on May 18, 1997, I asked myself, and even more, I asked God, “How can this be…?” Dr. Borelli, a rabbi and many Focolare members were among the audience of 3,000 Muslims. Through a translator and through a public address system outside the building, Chiara simply shared her experience of radically living the Gospel in the midst of World War II’s destruction, an experience of death and resurrection, of God’s intervention, of the hundredfold. It resonated with this audience beyond anything anticipated. It was a miracle of this charism from God, and attributable to the purity and openness of these followers of Imam Mohammed. Afterwards, Chiara and Imam Mohammed sealed a pact to give their lives for universal brotherhood. (Coincidentally, Imam Mohammed died 11 years later in 2008, just 6 months after Chiara’s death).
Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, second from the left, sealing his agreement with Chiara Lubich, second from the right, to collaborate together for the peace and unity of humanity.
Many encounters followed over the years on a grassroot level throughout the U.S., and at the Focolare’s worldwide center near Rome. On one of those occasions, Imam Mohammed was invited to speak to a large interfaith audience in St. Peter’s Square, in front of Pope John Paul II. When he personally shared about this developing friendship with the Holy Father afterwards, the Pope was welcoming and encouraging. This relationship was also important in the aftermath of 9/11, when we welcomed these brothers and sisters, and identified with their precarious position in the U.S. in that moment.
I am personally very grateful to have participated in this historical friendship, evidently a work of God. When Imam Mohammed once asked me to improvise a few words at a banquet in Washington, DC, I acknowledged what seemed to reflect God’s unmistakable grace - the good, prayerful, charitable, intelligent imams associated with him from all over the U.S. Many of my personal friendships with these imams and members of their communities, have the same depth and authenticity that I find in my graced relationships with committed Christians.
I am convinced that God has a plan for this particular people which is sincerely striving to follow him. And in our common effort to seek and submit to God, to work for the unity of the human family, we really are brothers and sisters together. In this process, these friends have acquired a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Catholic Church as well. In fact, they often encourage their Christian colleagues and neighbors to get to know their Christian faith better, possibly through the Focolare’s charism for unity.
William Neu has lived in Focolare communities in the U.S. over the last 40 years, holding various positions of responsibility in the movement's ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. He is currently studying for a PhD in Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Photo credits for the photos above goes to Centro Santa Chiara, Rome