By Martin Accad
Two sheikhs, three priests, and an evangelical theologian walk out of a mosque in the warm breeze of a late afternoon in June. Cars slow down and stare at the unlikely crew, as they move slowly beneath the elegant spire of the Aisha Bint Abi Bakr mosque in Lebanon’s southern city of Saida. As dusk settles on the city, they are heading toward a table of fellowship at a house nearby, with simple dishes prepared and laid out for them as they get ready to break the fast of Ramadan together. Polite conversations ensue and a plan is developed, carefully, respectfully, as the company shares ideas somewhat daunting of an unusual initiative they have been concocting together for nearly a year. It is exciting and humbling, stretching yet irresistible. All the warning signals of our mutually-exclusive worldviews are set alight like the garland of a Christmas tree. What will our people think? Will our bishops and muftis approve? Will the more radical in both our communities condemn?
Fast forward four months. Half a dozen men, some bearded and some too young for facial hair, dotted with half a dozen women with their heads covered in colorful textile, are sitting in the Greek Catholic Church of Saida, about half a mile from the Sayyida Aisha mosque. They gaze at a richly decorated iconostasis amidst enthralling Byzantine chants, as a Catholic, a Maronite, and an Orthodox priest circumambulate in one accord among their unusually diverse congregation that morning. One can hear the gentle tingle of chain censers swinging back and forth between the pews as the delicate smell of incense fills the high dome above them.
These are two scenes in a recent initiative of the Institute of Middle East Studies of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. Two scenes emerging from the unlikely dream of a group of friends and faith leaders who dared to envision what enacting their long-standing friendship among their congregations of faith might look like. Churches and Mosques reaching out to each other in hospitality and love. Never merging or pretending they are not different. Yet setting aside their differences to graciously engage, to lovingly collaborate, for the greater common good of their shared communities. The communal prayers are followed by conversation around the theme of that morning’s homily. The radical teaching of Jesus is discussed. The revolutionary message of Islam’s “Prophet of mercy,” Muhammad, is proclaimed. All reach deep into the treasure trove of their faith traditions to proclaim the compelling necessity of greater coexistence. This is the message and purpose of the Church-Mosque Network initiative.
This, too, is the message of Christmas. God taking the initiative to reach out to his creation that stood in rebellion against him since the dawn of time. Jesus Christ, Emanuel – God with us – inviting us to the unlikely fellowship of a banquet undeserved. The God of the universe extends a hand of peace to lavish loving hospitality on us, wretched though we are. We, in turn, put aside for a moment the reality of our violent world to receive his peace, so that we might extend it to others in hospitality in a country ripped asunder by sectarianism, violence, and division.
This is the message of Christmas. These are the gifts bestowed on us: Divine peace in the midst of a violent world; the soft breath of a mother looking over her God-given gift; the melodious humming of shepherd men reminiscing on the resounding chant of angelic beings: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Assalamu alaykum wa rahmatu Allah! “May the peace and mercy of God be upon you all” in this blessed season!
This blessed peace of Christmas must set the tone for the whole year, as more mosques and more churches across the country come together in their shared humanity to replicate the divine model of love and hospitality for the benefit of their communities.