Peacing Pioneers

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:25:00 AM

By Scott Rudie

The Franciscan tradition is rich with examples of individuals who have worked to foster better understanding amongst people with great differences, and Francis of Assisi challenged himself to put aside preconceived notions amid war and conflict.

In the 13th century, while thousands of Christian soldiers took up arms against Muslims in the Fifth Crusade, Francis found another way.

Francis sought to build community amid this chaos through dialogue with Malik-al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. Although Francis was initially on a mission to convert the sultan to Christianity, this meeting is now remembered in history as one of mutual respect.

Francis did not insult or judge the Muslims he met, and the sultan was impressed with Francis as a fellow servant of God. Francis returned to Italy with gifts from the sultan and, most importantly, a new knowledge of this poorly understood faith, and he shared with his followers his deep respect for their commitment to prayer, which he suggested they emulate.

Many centuries have come and gone since this historic meeting, and many current and former Stritch faculty and staff have carried on Francis’ example of building religious understanding in the midst of the tension of the 20th and 21st centuries. Even as the dynamics of interfaith tension has changed, the path through the tension remains a confounding problem.

However, this new generation of Franciscan peacemakers has reached out to Muslims and Jews so that members of all three faiths can learn more about the others without judgment, scorn or proselytization.

Sister Lucille Walsh, OSF, founder of the Stritch Religious Studies Department, was one of the first to perceive a need for dialogue with those of other faiths. Sister Lucille had long been interested in non-Western religions such as Hinduism and Daoism, and her study of other faiths eventually led her to Islam in the early 1980s. However, she admitted that her background made an open look at the faith difficult.

“I came with all of the prejudices of the years,” she said. “I thought Islam was ruled by law alone, and I got the feeling their relationship with God was based on law, and not on love. There was a lot of internal resistance on my part because my Christian religion didn’t include these people. Maybe it was never said, but it was instilled in me.”

A deeper level of understanding only came when she met actual Muslims. Many of these interactions occurred in her classroom, where she learned more about the faith from Muslims of both the Sunni and Shi’ite traditions. These interactions were eye-opening and highly educational, and she came to wonder what opportunities there were for a wider dialogue for Christians and Muslims outside of the classroom. Sister Lucille was a member of Milwaukee’s Archdiocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, but Islam was not included, underscoring the need for a new kind of interfaith dialogue.

At around this time, Sister Lucille met Dr. Abbas Hamdani, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. As a friendship developed between this Catholic Sister and Muslim professor, so too did notions of a community dialogue between Christians and Muslims. With the blessing of then Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, their first attempt at a Christian-Muslim dialogue took place in 1980.

Establishing a sense of legitimacy for this first dialogue attempt was not easy, especially among Muslims.

“At that first dialogue, there were a lot of skeptical Muslims with Korans under their arms wondering what [Sister Lucille] would say about Islam,” said Sister Jessine Reiss, OSF, who worked with Sister Lucille on these efforts and took over as chair of the group in 1990. “They ended up being very complimentary.”

The fledgling group – the Islamic-Christian Dialogue of the Milwaukee Archdiocese – resolved to meet six or seven times a year, and these dialogues attracted a core of 20 to 25 participants, both Muslim and Christian. Jewish representation did not occur at these first meetings, as Christian and Muslim participants resolved to develop a more complete understanding of each other before widening the ongoing conversation.

Janan Najeeb, director of the Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition and a Stritch adjunct faculty member, participated in these early dialogues in the 1980s through the involvement of her parents. She has vivid memories of the dialogues, many of which occurred at Stritch.

“I think that there were preconceived notions on both sides,” she said. “So it was important that it was made clear that we were there to dialogue and this was not a ‘missionary’ effort. I remember that Sister Lucille and Sister Jessine were very supportive.”

Dr. Dan DiDomizio, professor in the Religious Studies Department, also took part in similar efforts in the early 1980s to foster greater understanding among the three faiths. His involvement began with the Milwaukee Association of Interfaith Relations, which fostered dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Much like Sister Lucille’s experiences, those early efforts at conversation were difficult.

“It was very difficult to get Muslims involved at first,” DIDomizio said. “And many Jews harbored hesitation, which was understandable. Christians have not treated Jews well. It took time for the human relationships to build.”

Sister Lucille, Sister Jessine and DiDomizio attended numerous dialogues, which were uncomfortable at times, but the tensions eased so that deeper conversations could take place. As time went by, open conversations about key religious questions took place, such as the nature of God, the nature of Jesus Christ, and other issues.

“After getting to know each other and feeling very comfortable, we got to issues like women in Islam, or why priests and nuns can’t get married,” said Najeeb. “Over the years, we’ve developed a very strong relationship and strong understanding of each other.”

The opportunities for moments of true interfaith understanding have been surprisingly numerous, and they have come at unexpected times. When a group of Christians and Muslims discussed the nature of Jesus, Sister Lucille found greater disagreement amongst the various denominations of Christians present than there were between Christians and Muslims.

During another conversation about Jesus, both Christians and Muslims were struck by the similarities. The account of the birth of Jesus in the Koran is almost identical to the Gospel of Luke.

“There was no attempt to proselytize, only to listen and gain understanding,” said Sister Jessine. “When we broke down the wall that existed, there was more willingness to learn.”

DiDomizio recalled a conversation about the issue of intermarriage among the three faiths, and noted that the concern among Jewish participants was especially interesting.

“Historically, that was how assimilation has taken place, and they [Jews] have lost,” he said. “A rabbi at the dialogue said that he would be willing to be at a [Christian-Jewish] wedding, but many Jews were adamant that that should never be, and the tension at that meeting was among the Jewish people in attendance. It was interesting as a Christian to watch this dynamic going on.”

Najeeb recalls a dialogue that took place regarding the Virgin Mary, which attracted several hundred people. The Muslim view of Mary surprised most Christians in attendance.

“Many did not know how close Muslims were to Mary,” said Najeeb, “that Islam embraces the Virgin Birth, and the fact that there is an entire chapter devoted to her in the Koran. It was a tremendous eye opener for so many people because of the close emotional ties [both faiths] have to Mary.”

There have been other members of the Stritch community who have participated in these kinds of efforts, such as Sister Adele Thibaudeau, OSF, director of the Center for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation at Stritch; and Steven Kuhl, associate professor of Religious Studies.

Kathy Heilbronner, interim director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, has forged connections with several Stritch faculty and staff members through interfaith dialogue efforts. Stritch has played a pivotal role in forging interfaith connections that have made Milwaukee in many respects a model community, she said.

“There has been a plethora of opportunities for [Christians and Jews] to learn from each other,” she said. “We’ve set a pretty high standard in this community. I think it’s something that people recognize as a national model, and we really cherish that relationship.”

These dialogues became even more numerous in the late 1980s and 1990s through the work of organizations such as the Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition, the Milwaukee Association of Interfaith Relations, and many others.

As time went on, Sister Lucille and the other participants in her dialogues collaborated on a variety of projects that were geared to combat stereotypes regarding Islam. The group conducted reviews of social studies textbooks to point out examples of subtle or overt stereotyping, and wrote to publishers of calendars to ask them to include Muslim holidays along with Christian and Jewish ones.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the level of dialogue only increased to address the fear and suspicion of those uncertain times.

“The relationships that we built up were very helpful,” DiDomizio said. “One of the forums was about views on violence. It was a very good dialogue because it was understood that this kind of act was not appropriate in mainline Islam. But we were able to have these forums in a very tense atmosphere because we had built this trust.”

All participants in these dialogues are optimistic that these interactions will continue to deepen interfaith understanding. Direct Jewish-Muslim dialogue in the Milwaukee community has proven to be more elusive, and much of the tension can be traced to current events in the Middle East.

“There is tension that is centered around the State of Israel,” said Heilbronner. “You’re really not talking about faith; you’re talking about politics. But there’s a lot of crossover, because you’re talking about a land that is sacred to all three faith traditions. It can be dicey.”

Separating 21st century politics from the faith’s beliefs is difficult now, since it obscures other interfaith connections that many have not had time to explore. The image of Abraham as a patriarchal figure for all three faiths and a reminder of a common origin and values is one such source of future dialogue.

“We’re all Abrahamic religions, so it’s a given that there’s a bond there,” said Heilbronner.

The words of Francis from the 12th century underscore that sense of connection:

“The brothers (who go among the Muslims) must not take action against them, nor cause disputes, but must submit themselves to all.”


Side Box

Koran (2:62)

“Those who believe (in the Koran)
And those who follow the Jewish scriptures
And the Christians and the Sabians
And who believe in God
And the Last Day
And work righteously
Shall have their reward.”