On a cold Sunday night in February, I was trying something different with my students. We had been invited by an imam at a local mosque to bring students to tour the mosque, share a meal, and have a conversation with members from their community.
For the past several years, I have been a part of an interfaith engagement committee that seeks to provide opportunities for Christian students to learn more about other faith communities. Bethel University in Minnesota, where I am an assistant professor in history with a focus on Islamic Studies, is informed and motivated by the Christian faith, meaning there is little to no religious diversity on campus. We felt this event was a great opportunity for our students.
Around 16 of us arrived at the mosque just as evening prayers were beginning. Perhaps expecting more traditional architecture and a minaret, a few students expressed surprise as we parked on the street outside of a nondescript building. Warmly greeted upon our entry, we were directed to a hall with small cubbies. I could sense a bit of self-consciousness as we removed and stored our shoes. I was not alone in trying to arrange my sock so the small hole I discovered was less noticeable.
The ladies in our group did their best to arrange scarves over our foreheads as we had been asked. We divided into male and female clusters and followed our respective guides to the separate spaces for men and women in the large, sparse room where prayers took place. As I chose a space on the floor with the other female students on our side of the partition, women from the mosque intentionally found spaces in and among us in order to make us more comfortable.
We observed prayers and then proceeded to a room where we shared a meal with our Muslim hosts. The atmosphere changed as we began to settle in and eat. While we had been silent observers during prayer, my students were now warming up. While half of us were clearly not adept at eating on the floor and managing a headscarf, the veterans graciously offered to help, and we found ourselves laughing together. We managed a smooth transition from the exchange of questions to a genuine conversation. From my perspective as the professor, I was feeling pretty positive about how the night was going. My students seemed to be enjoying themselves and I was proud of their willingness to adapt to some new experiences. “This is working!” I thought to myself.
We finished our meal and moved into yet another room for what we had been told would be a shared conversation about our respective religions. As we filed into rows of chairs in the large, communal space, we were again directed to sit according to gender.
After we were settled, one of the older male students from the mosque stood in front of the group and explained that some of the Muslim students had prepared comments they were going to share and then he would moderate a discussion. He stepped back against the wall and began calling students forward one by one. The Bethel student next to me looked at me with worry in her eyes. None of them had been told to have anything “prepared.”
The students recited passages from the Qur’an and the last student spoke at length about the nature of God. He displayed a bold confidence as he spoke of the unicity of God. He finished his comments by saying, “Allah cannot be divided. Allah is one, he cannot be human. This is why the Christian view of Allah is blasphemous.” As one might imagine, the room became silent as the student returned to his seat.
The moderator stepped forward and invited questions and comments. I cringed. Things had been going so well. “Here it comes,” I thought. One of our students spoke up to defend the role of Jesus as Messiah. Another tried to explain the function of the Holy Spirit. The tension in the room grew as our Christian students felt ill-equipped to produce scriptures on the spot to support their orthodoxy. Indeed, a somewhat heated debate began to take place over the topic of the Trinity and the Islamic view of the “oneness” (tawhid) of God.
I sat among my students, feeling helpless, as there was both commentary and pointed questions about Christian theology and the potential blasphemy inherent in a view of God as three persons. We had agreed in advance with the mosque leadership that this was to be a night for the students to engage with one another, and that we adults would try to remain behind the scenes – so I tried. This back and forth went on for nearly thirty minutes until the conversation came to an awkward standstill. It was uncomfortable. It was unsettling. I felt like we had failed all of the students present in the mosque that evening.
Understand, in twelve years of teaching, I have been a part of many interfaith events designed to bring together Christian and Muslim students. Over the years we have developed a productive formula, bringing students of different faith traditions together to intellectually or physically work together around a common goal or shared interest. We desire to meet students where they are “at” – which means that many are in a state of questioning or working out their faith and beliefs. On a first meeting, we seldom ask them to explore their theologies, but rather to come together as people with many shared concerns (then we feed them really good food, which is essential).
While all of these gatherings start out a bit awkward, by the end, the students are often interacting without any assistance from the old people (me) who brought them together. The best events are when the students quickly forget I am even there. They exchange emails, “friend” each other on their social media accounts and make future plans. In short, most of these events leave me feeling good, the marker I now realize I used to determine if an interfaith event had been “successful.”
After the debate over the Trinity, I was definitely not feeling good.
On the ride home, I was already in triage mode, texting my colleagues to determine if we could find a time to plan coordinated responses to the calls that might be coming from concerned parents (yes, these happen even at the college level) and how to present a united front. We had built in time to debrief with students later in the week in each of our classes, and as we chatted about how to frame those discussions, I was simultaneously drafting my apology to the students in my head. I felt as if I had somehow tricked them; putting them in a situation where they were not just asked to learn about another faith, but to defend their own.
When we arrived back on campus the students scattered quietly off into the night, as I was trying to assess their level of distress. This was not what I’d planned for them. I was deeply worried that what they had experienced that night would only reinforce the very stereotypes I try to combat through my curriculum.
When I met with my students in our classroom a few days later, I fought the impulse to start with the apology and instead offered a more generic, “So what did you think?” A few began commenting on the very tasty food, and the enjoyable conversations they had over the meal we shared before the more formal conversation. Some noted the admiration they had for the formal prayers we had observed. I found myself beginning to relax, but only slightly. Surely, the ‘but I am never doing that again’ confessions were coming. Only they never did.
Instead, what developed was a thoughtful conversation about what it means to be humble and gracious guests. There was agreement that the last hour of the evening had, indeed, been uncomfortable. While they were certainly taking that discomfort seriously, a few days of distance allowed them to laugh about the awkwardness of the encounter and consider it from different angles.
Students spoke about the need to not be defensive but rather to be okay with operating from a posture of learning. One commented that he could only imagine what it would be like to have the tables turned, and to be a Muslim listening to a Christian defend their theology in contrast to Islam. “I’m sure that happens a whole lot more often than what happened to us,” he remarked. A few students then began to discuss their own struggles with aspects of Christian theology, and an almost confessional atmosphere was created as some expressed the difficulty of articulating faith and truth claims.
Once again, the students seemed to forget I was there.
The discussion morphed into one about the varying beliefs and positions within our own Christian circles. By default, it became one of the first intrafaith conversations we’d been a part of. The students became more aware that they are not all of one mind, and that trying to fit all Christians into a box would be unfair (and that was true for people who identify as Muslim as well). Like me, the students agreed the night at the mosque had been unsettling. They agreed the night was uncomfortable. More than a few admitted they likely would not have signed up for it had they known in advance how it would unfold. However, they were glad they came.
That night is now one of my most meaningful moments, not just as a teacher but also as a Christian trying to live well with others in a multi-faith world. It reminds me that anytime we choose to engage with others we must be willing to extend a certain level of trust. This goes beyond the trust I needed to extend to those that invited us to the mosque. I also learned I must trust that my students are capable – that they didn’t need my protection but rather needed me to sit alongside them in their discomfort and later be willing to engage their questions. They needed me to admit that this work can be hard and sometimes uncomfortable, that I don’t have all the answers and also live with questions. But that engaging, learning, and sharing space with others is important even if it doesn’t go as expected. And And even when something doesn’t go as expected, it can still be a successful interfaith event.