The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


September 9, 2010

Florida Lutherans' interreligious efforts no publicity stunt

Michael Collins, an ELCA pastor in Gainesville, Fla., hoped Sept. 9 for two prayers to be answered.

Earlier in the week — while the Gainesville-based Dove Outreach Center was still planning to burn copies of the Quran — Collins had asked via Facebook, e-mail and in-person, for members of University Lutheran Church in Gainesville, and the University of Florida (Gainesville) Lutheran Campus Ministry to pray for two things: "that all this talk will turn in to that: ‘all this talk,'" and "for this community and its leaders so that we can continue to teach our students and friends that hate and discrimination have no place in our society."

Michael Collins, pastor of University Lutheran Church, Gainesville, Fla., stands in front of the congregation's sign, changed in response to a local church's plan to burn Qurans.
Michael Collins, pastor of University Lutheran Church, Gainesville, Fla., stands in front of the congregation's sign, changed in response to a local church's plan to burn Qurans.

By Sept. 9, the Associated Press was reporting that the controversial center's plans for burning Qurans seemed to be fizzling out. Regardless of whether or not the burning would be cancelled, a Gainesville interreligious effort that includes members of the ELCA's Florida-Bahamas Synod, once ignited, continues to grow. It couldn't come at a better time, with mounting tensions over a proposed mosque and cultural center to be built in New York City near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, and an increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. 

Beginning with a Sept. 8 interfaith service at Holy Trinity, an Episcopal congregation in Gainesville, local faith groups united around services, educational forums, shared dinners and joint service projects set to run through the Sept. 11 weekend.

Peace through education

All the events "are designed to peacefully educate and unify," Collins told The Lutheran. University Lutheran Church, other Christian churches, synagogues and Islamic centers are including similar portions of Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament), Christian Scripture (New Testament), and the Quran in their weekend worship readings, Collins said. Gainesville's interreligious community is also supporting a local Muslim association in a Sept. 11 feeding of the poor, Collins said.

"The act of burning the sacred scripture of Islam has no place in our faith, our religious communities, our town, and in our nation," Collins wrote in a letter to parishioners at University Lutheran Church and the 50 to 60 participants in Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Florida. "While we may not agree with the beliefs of Islam, there is nothing Christ-like in a blatant attack on their personhood or their belief; or in religious persecution."

It motivated University Lutheran members to place a new message on their church sign. "It says: Use your faith to build bridges," Collins said.

Students build bridges

"We have a fairly large Muslim population in Gainesville," said Schwarz, a university senior and a peer minister for Lutheran Campus Ministry. Campus ministry has held interfaith progressive dinners, but now hopes to expand to joint service projects with Muslim students, she said. They're also making T-shirts that read "Christian Gators for Peace" (the Gators are the university's football team) to wear around campus.

"We feel it's important to say we're not in support of the kind of hatred that was put out there," she  said. "It has taught us as students and Christians that we need to know what we believe and to learn more about other cultures and religions." With the Dove Center only 8 miles from campus, other University of Florida students have asked Lutheran Campus Ministry participants how they feel about the actions of the center, which also claims Christianity.

"We've had a lot of students ask us what we believe about it; how we as Christians feel," Schwarz said. "We say we don't believe on putting a limit on God's love and promoting the hatred and xenophobia that Terry Jones [of the Dove Outreach Center] is promoting."

Loving the neighbor

"Positive interreligious activities and relationships have been born in this thorny ground in Gainesville," said ELCA pastor Russell L. Meyer, ecumenical representative for Florida-Bahamas Synod Bishop Edward R. Benoway and executive director of the Florida Council of Churches. "We in the ELCA have a lot to offer with Muslim relationships because we've been [relating] in many places around the world where [Christians are] in the minority."

"In our society today we're struggling with how to deal with the ‘other'," Meyer said. "We have this problem knowing how to understand ourselves in the presence of the ‘other.' But Scripture is about how we make a place for people who don't have a place. ...The command to love God and neighbor includes the neighbor who is the alien in the land."

Update (Sept. 10, 2010)

Lutheran World Federation president Munib Younan released a Sept. 10 statement on the proposed burning of the Quran. Younan,  who is also bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, wrote that the “irresponsible behavior of a man who claims to be a pastor” is “utterly counter to the beliefs of Christianity” and “nothing less than a hate crime.”

Younan encouraged the Dove Center leadership to read the Quran with new eyes. “After all, when Martin Luther was asked by the citizens of Basel to condemn the Qur’an, he offered support to a local printer to publish it,” Younan wrote. Read the entire statement here.

3 ways to reach out to neighbors

Michael L. Collins, pastor at University Lutheran Church and Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Florida, shares these three tips for reaching out to Muslim neighbors:

1. Educate yourself about neighbors of different religions and their faiths. This will help you avoid stereotypes.

2. Hold joint social action projects or other sharing opportunities. Build a house or feed the hungry together. We're gathering books for the community library and feeding the homeless together with brothers and sisters from the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Don't be afraid of getting involved in the culture because they're different from you. Talk to people. 

3. After you've learned and experienced, teach. Children, young people and even adults who've learned ways of prejudice and bitterness need to be taught. Our campus ministry is looking at
ways to hold conversations with Islamic brothers and sisters. You, too, can look for ways to be involved with brothers and sisters of different faiths. We are part of a common humanity.

In other news... a Sept. 7 statement on ‘bigotry': 

Donald J. McCoid, executive director for ELCA Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations, represented ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson at a Sept 7 interreligious summit in Washington D.C. Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders at the summit denounced anti-Muslim rhetoric and bigotry in the U.S., in a statement McCoid helped draft. It reads in part: "As religious leaders in this great country, we have come together in our nation's capital to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America's Muslim community. We bear a sacred responsibility to honor America's varied faith traditions and to promote a culture of mutual respect and the assurance of religious freedom for all." Read the full statement here.

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