An Interfaith Conversation in Fairfax

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

Last week members of our congregation accepted the invitation of our neighboring Turkish mosque to share an Iftar dinner with them as they broke their daily Ramadan fast. They first gave us a tour of the mosque and graciously answered our questions about Islam. We then observed their call on prayer before joining them for dinner.

We divided up around tables, giving us lots of opportunity for informal conversation as we ate together. It’s a wonderful model for interfaith dialogue. At a basic, human level we were neighbors sharing food and learning to know each other. I had an extended conversation with the Imam and we soon became friends. I explained our Mennonite expression of Christian faith, including our sixteenth Anabaptist history. He, in turn, explained some of the unique Turkish Islamic traditions.

Much of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys had been in Asia Minor, now Turkey. This had once been the center of the Christian world. Cappadocia, now is central Turkey, had been a center of Christian theological development in the fourth century. Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the capital of the Byzantine Christian Empire for a thousand years before eventually being conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

The Imam talked with me about the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul, one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. (Hagia Sophia means Holy Wisdom.) Built in 537, it had been the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire before being converted into a mosque by the Ottoman sultan in 1453. More recently in 1935 it was secularized and opened as a museum. The Imam told me that some of the original Orthodox Christian frescos that had been plastered over by the Ottomans were now being exposed again.

I still find it a little startling that a Turkish Imam and I were sharing a meal together and talking about these things as neighbors in Fairfax, Virginia. It’s an indication of how globalization is changing our local communities. We’re much more mobile than earlier generations have ever been as we move for schooling and jobs or other reasons. This often means living far away from our extended families. The Imam and I also talked about some of these challenges.

There are more foreign-born people living in the United States today than even during the former peak of immigration in the beginning of the twentieth century. Thirty percent of the people living in Fairfax County are foreign-born. This has created huge cultural shifts, including lots of religious diversity. Diana Eck, in her book A New Religious America, reports that today there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians and as many Muslims as Jews in America. She claims that we have now become the world’s most religiously diverse nation (2-3).

I thought about that as the group from our congregation was walking back to our church following that Iftar dinner. We were all talking about what we had learned from our Muslim neighbors. I suppose there were similar conversations taking place back at the mosque. Not too long ago most Americans thought such religious and cultural differences were far away in other parts of the world. Today, all the diversity in our world has come to us right where we live.

This brings with it the opportunity and the necessity of being good neighbors and cultivating interfaith understanding. We’re already planning a cooperative “Day to Serve” activity with our new-found Muslim friends along with other congregations and faith communities here in Fairfax.

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