Two Faiths, One Friendship
Michal Meulenberg (left) and Sondos Kholaki
by Michal Meulenberg and Sondos Kholaki
April 25, 2016

Editor’s Note: This article is an offering from the Paulist Fathers Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.

Sondos and Michal were born in the Middle East in December 1982. Michal was raised in Holland and moved to the United States in 2005. Sondos was raised in Southern California. They first met at a Muslim-Christian bridge-building event in the Fall of 2011 and quickly became good friends. They launched their “Two Faiths One Friendship” initiative in January 2015, reaching over 8,000 people worldwide online and introduced 350 Muslims and Christians to each other through local events in just the first year.

We like to say that our friendship is God-inspired and that God had us collaborating from day one. In late 2011, Michal and her church community organized a Christian-Muslim “Meet Your Neighbor” event at a local mosque. Sondos, a board member of that mosque, emceed the event alongside Michal. We met for the first time in person a few minutes before the event and then jumped into planning/work mode. From the start, we worked well together and found that we had plenty in common, from our age (born 15 days and 5 hours apart) to our hobbies and aspirations. That evening was also the beginning of what is now a familiar refrain to us from people: “You two look like sisters!”

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After about four years of developing our friendship, and after seeing an increase in violence committed by individuals claiming to be Muslim and Christian, we decided to act on an idea that had been brewing for some time: creating a space where we could share our friendship with the world. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2015, we launched our website called “Miss Understanding” and wrote stories about our expressions of service and love to God every week. 

One of Sondos’s favorite stories is when she was invited to take a class at Michal’s church and needed to find a place to perform one of her five daily prayers. Sondos carries a small prayer mat with her, so she spread it out on the floor in the corner of a public walkway to pray. Despite the cold and rain outside, Michal insisted on standing beside Sondos in case anybody happened to walk by and cause trouble. Sondos was extremely touched by Michal’s protective gesture. 

In another story, Michal was going through difficult personal challenges, and Sondos went out to buy her a bouquet of sunflowers to “brighten” Michal’s “cloudy” day. Our point was to show that we weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary or unattainable; rather, we hoped to provide a real example of a Christian-Muslim friendship. 

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In the first week since launching “Miss Understanding,” we enjoyed over 800 visitors from over 40 countries with several more requests from around the world to translate our posts into different languages. We were pleasantly surprised by the support. Right away, readers began asking, “How and where do I meet a Muslim?” and “How and where do I find a willing Christian friend?” It was then that we came up with the idea for local quarterly Friendship Mixers, where Christians and Muslims looking for a friend from the “other” side can connect with somebody. These “2 Faiths 1 Friendship” Mixers are open to the public and are free, and people can attend as many as they want until they feel satisfied in having found a match. We like to joke that it’s like speed dating, but for a friend! In the past year, we hosted four Friendship Mixers that attracted over 100 Muslims and Christians at each event; our most recent Mixer topped 150 attendees of all ages. And for those Muslims and Christians who attended a Mixer and want to take the next step in peace-building, we offer a 4-part training program where we discuss the “yes, but…” issues on both sides of the spectrum and teach the tools needed to overcome barriers.  

150 Muslims Christians

We fear what we don’t know. It takes a lot of courage to recognize that we hold religious or cultural biases and make a commitment to work on those biases through conversation and friendships. Research shows that getting to know somebody on a personal level decreases the likelihood of harboring negative feelings towards that person and his/her affiliated group. Visiting a mosque or church for the first time, attending one of the Friendship Mixers, carrying a conversation with a Muslim/Christian–all of these first steps may require a suspension of fear or nervousness, but it’s a necessary suspension to working for peace. 

2F1F Christmas Dinners

Research has proven time and again that a personal connection is the best way to weaken feelings of hate, suspicion, and mistrust. In this vein, during Ramadan, we found a dozen Muslim families who hosted over 80 Christians– sometimes, complete strangers – for Iftar dinners at their homes, and in December, Christian families returned the favor by opening their homes to about 100 Muslims for Christmas dinner. These home-dinners proved to be one of our most successful projects; out of it blossomed several friendships where Muslims and Christians started meeting for coffee, meals, and even hikes outside of our “2 Faiths 1 Friendship” events. 

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Everybody has the capacity to work as a peacebuilder; only the circle of influence is what may differ. There aren’t enough imams and pastors in the world to reach every community out there, so everybody’s participation is imperative to the success of this peacebuilding movement. To the both of us, peacebuilding has to be grassroots because it’s about engaging the hearts of people, and that effort needs a personal touch. We publicize what we do through the website to inspire and motivate others, but we certainly cannot–and will not–do it on our own.

We know that the work is just beginning and far from over. With God’s guidance and blessing, we hope that, by sharing our peacebuilding experiences and tips, others can enlarge the friendship ripple circles to an unprecedented growth! Our tagline is: For every act of violence, we will react with another act of friendship. Let us start a movement that underscores the core tenets of our religions: peace, love, and justice.

Sondos is working on her M.Div in Chaplaincy and Michal on her PhD in Muslim-Christian Relations. Their passion is to see Muslims and Christians overcome their fears and stereotypes of each other and work together for grassroots peace-building locally and around the world.  If you are interested in our work and want to join, stay updated, or donate towards it, please visit www.MissUnderstanding.co