April 3, 2018
Passion and compassion are the keys ingredients to all interfaith and intra-faith relationships.
A few years after 9/11, I received a call from Dr. Victoria Dendinger, the Director of Adult Faith Formation at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, inviting me to have a coffee and discuss the potential to speak to her women about Islam and Muslims. The coffee turned out to be a luncheon, and Dr. Dendinger was accompanied by three women. They asked me about my faith and my “conversion” since my name is Maria. It was a surprise for them to discover that Muslims also honor Mary and Jesus, and that both are spoken about in the Quran.
Dr. Dendinger then asked me if I could speak to her Adult Faith Formation group about Mary in the Quran. Since then, Victoria and the three women and I have become close friends, and together we started our bi-annual women’s gathering. As the chair of the Women’s Committee at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim (IIOC), I hosted the luncheon in October and Victoria hosted the other in May.
Our aim was to build a relationship between the two communities by bringing our women closer to each other. During these years, our talks addressed different topics and engaged women in round table discussions to participate and share both their common and different beliefs such as their love for God, Jesus and Mary, the challenges that mothers face in raising children, and the struggle between faith and traditions. We also hosted a one-day retreat at St. Andrew’s Abbey—a male Benedictine Monastery of the Congregation of the Annunciation in Northern Los Angeles County. These luncheons lasted for more than ten years.
When Loretta Davis, from the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Los Alamitos, heard about our program, she came and attended one of our luncheons with Our Lady Queen of Angeles parishioners at the Islamic Institute. She shared her interest in establishing a similar group with women in her congregation, and another bridge was built. After I resigned from IIOC, and Loretta moved to another city, we shifted our meetings to the more intimate settings of homes, still providing a space for our women to engage in various activities and programs.
This was a fruitful initiative and served a remarkable purpose during its time. Over time, however, things drifted a bit. Loretta, Victoria and I became more actively involved outside our communities of worship. In 2008, God had a different plan for me. I was invited to speak to incarcerated women in in the Los Angeles jail about “Women in Islam.” And the day after, the head coach of the program invited me to work with these inmates in her program. Not long after, I started seeing Muslim inmates, and today I serve as the senior Muslim chaplain in LA Sheriff jails.
One day, while I was doing my round, a Christian inmate mentioned something to me in the Bible that deeply resembled something in our own Islamic tradition. That was the day I developed an eager interest in reading the Bible and becoming more heavily involved with a small group of imams, pastors and leaders, all working together to address the controversial questions about each other’s faiths.
Amidst these meetings, I developed a relationship with a pastor and his daughter who demonstrated remarkable compassion towards Muslims. A new hope was born in me: to establish a strong and lifetime relationship between our two groups. Three years ago, this relationship became our movement—2 Faiths, 1 Friendship.
This movement was far more complex than getting together for food and a lecture. It was a platform to dive into both the Bible and the Qur’an, engage everyone in deep discussions, share our learning experiences, and of course, enjoy a meal together.
While the movement initially started with a simple friendly social of mingling and eating, it evolved to include a half day or sometimes a full day workshop led by the pastor and myself in which the Muslim and Christian participants have the opportunity to learn about each others’ beliefs, as well as questions that people have, such as: Why is Jesus the son of God? What does the phrase Kingdom of God mean? What does Shari’a mean? What does Islam say about women’s rights?
Following this first step, a second training is provided, with the intent to take the participants on a journey where they learn about their scriptures together through the common stories. Some examples include Adam and the temptation, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Joseph. The third and last training focuses on how we can serve the community at large and make a difference in this world together.
While these trainings are hosted throughout the year, during the holiday seasons we have our participants conduct their own dinners. In Ramadan, Muslim participants open their homes to Christian friends, providing them with an opportunity over the breaking-of-the-fast dinner to learn about Muslim fasting and what Ramadan means to them. During Christmas, Christians invite their Muslim friends and share stories about the birth of Jesus and what the holiday means to them.
These workshops have not only brought together Christians and Muslims and sewn the seeds for long-term relationships, but they have also brought both groups closer to their own Scriptures and closer to God.
Although our workshops are conducted in Southern California, we have been able to reach out to others in different states and countries with participants in Texas, Alabama, the UK and even India. We have also traveled to conduct trainings onsite in both Minnesota and Arizona.
We trust that this humble movement contributes constructively to a long, overdue change called for in Muslims’ and Christians’ relationships with one another in our social context. We also hope that it will encourage others to start their own positive, long-term relationships.
Maria Khani is a Muslim educator, public speaker, and prison chaplain in Orange County, California, dedicated to building constructive interfaith relationships. She is an active member in three different interfaith groups and serves on both the West Coast and National Catholic-Muslim Dialogues.