This year during Ramadan, right before the start of the United We Serve Interfaith Week of Service, the Interfaith Committee at my church, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia, organized an iftar (dinner to break the Ramadan fast) for members of local Muslim communities. More than 60 Catholics and Muslims attended the dinner, a turnout far surpassing our expectations.
We organized this iftar as an expression of friendship and communal unity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and as a gift to Muslims during their Holy Month. We also hoped it would be an opportunity for us to learn more about Islam and to grow in understanding of each other, and to build relationships within our community.
We began by consulting Muslim friends about the proper way to hold an iftar, including appropriate food, environment, and prayer requirements. On the day of the iftar, we posted welcome signs around the church in Arabic and English to greet the guests. Opportunities for us to learn more about Islam sprang up almost immediately, from the proper way to position the prayer rugs to the fact that some Muslim women prefer not to shake hands with men.
After the initial breaking of the fast at sundown with dates and samosas, the imam we had invited to lead the Muslim prayers, Imam Khalil, began with an explanation of their meaning and the importance of prayer and fasting in Islam, two practices which also resonate strongly with us as Catholics.
During the Muslim prayers, while most of us Catholics could not understand the Arabic words, we sat in respectful silence or prayed silently in our own way. Whether we prayed with hands open or folded, with the Muslim prostrations or the Catholic gesture of the Sign of the Cross, we were united as one community in the presence of our one God. The participants gathered represented not only a diversity of faiths, but a diversity of cultures and histories as well. Imam Khalil was a convert to Islam who had been raised a Catholic, now leading Muslim prayers in the house of worship of his former religion. The Catholic priest from our church who gave the dinner blessing after the Muslim prayers, Fr. Paulinus, was from Ghana, and shared that there are Christians, Muslims, and traditional African faith adherents within his village and even within his own family. In his blessing, Fr. Paulinus mentioned that the Catholic seminary in his village where he studied to be a priest required the priests-in-training to study Islam under an imam for one year, in order to grow in authentic understanding. “I am all three,” he said—“a Christian, a Muslim, and a traditional person . . . Thank you, God, for showing us different paths, while our prayers go to the same place . . . We are called not to hate, but to love all.”
Imam Khalil also emphasized that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and that we are called to learn about each other. “Your faith journey doesn’t end when you accept a particular faith,” he said, and shared a quote from the Qur’an: “Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”
The evening concluded with a joint blessing from Imam Khalil and Fr. Paulinus, and an invitation by one of the participants to attend an upcoming iftar at her mosque. In that same week, the Week of Interfaith Service in America as part of President Obama’s United We Serve campaign, there was a large iftar held at a local synagogue as well—another example of interfaith cooperation in our community and of the power of religion to bring people together in friendship and faith. As participants said goodbye to each other, I heard one Catholic man say he was now interested to visit a mosque, and a Muslim man who was interested in attending a Catholic Mass. Some participants also formed a group to share notices of other interfaith events in the area. To assist people of other faiths in practicing and celebrating their faith is one way to live the values of love and service in one’s own faith—values which are central to most religions. Interfaith initiatives can also help to strengthen a community. As one man who attended the iftar stated, “I think tonight brought us all a little closer together.”