A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of a day filled with the usual phone calls, meetings and emails, there was one email that caught my eye – “field trip to Greensboro.” I have been the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Raleigh only since September. I am slowly learning my way around this large parish, which has both a school and a preschool.
The “field trip to Greensboro” was an invitation from the seventh-grade class to go along on their field trip to both the International Civil Rights Museum and the Islamic Center of Greensboro. A couple of weeks earlier, in a homily at mass for the school, I had talked about the four black college students who began the lunch counter sit-in movement at the old Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, how those students were brave witnesses to the cause of racial justice and how they drew strength from their faith. It’s an important story for anyone to hear.
So I said yes to the invitation. I had been to the Civil Rights Museum before, but I had never visited a mosque. What would this be like? What might our students, teachers and chaperones expect to encounter there?
I was especially interested because, in the Franciscan tradition of which the friars here are a part, there is a story that has come down to us from the time of St. Francis of Assisi himself. As the story is told, Francis, in the middle of the time of the Crusades, sailed from Italy across the Mediterranean Sea to the coast of Egypt, to the city of Damietta, where Christians were fighting Muslims.
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When he arrived, Francis, dressed humbly in a ragged robe, boldly approached the field of battle and somehow managed to get an audience with the sultan. As the story is told, the two men – one Christian, one Muslim – spoke with each other of their own faith and of their own hopes for peace. At the end of their meeting, Francis was escorted safely out by the Muslim guards. The Crusades, of course, continued on, but eight centuries after that remarkable encounter, the story is still told in that part of the world, and Franciscans are held in regard by the people of that region.
And so built right into our Franciscan tradition, right from St. Francis himself, is the idea that we are called to be peacemakers, especially in a world that cries out for peace. With that in mind, I was glad that our seventh-graders were going to visit a mosque, given the unease about Islam that exists in our culture.
Our bus pulled up outside the Islamic Center, and we were met by our hosts and invited inside after taking off our shoes. We all sat together on the floor in a large room. Our hosts spoke to us about the Muslim faith. As we listened, we could see that there are clearly differences in how our traditions understand God.
But we also saw that there were parts of the Muslim faith worthy of great respect:
The word “Islam,” for example, means “submit to God.” And to be Muslim means to be one who acts on that. We learned that an important part of the Muslim faith is to watch out for the poor. And we were moved when, after the noon hour had passed, our hosts stopped what they were doing, knelt together on one side of the room and bowed in prayer to the God whom Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship.
When Francis of Assisi visited with the sultan eight centuries ago, he was also moved by the Muslim call to prayer, which was done five times a day. The sultan, at the end of the visit, gave Francis the gift of a horn used for the call to prayer, and that horn can still be seen at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
In our own time, our beloved Pope Francis has written in “The Joy of the Gospel” that “our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence.” In a gesture that moved the hearts of many, Pope Francis washed the feet of two Muslims on Holy Thursday two years ago. It was his own example of the “culture of encounter” for which he has repeatedly called for in our world.
For a moment at the mosque, amid all the turmoil and all the mistrust and fear in our land, we saw a coming together of two faith traditions, our own local culture of encounter that included respectful dialogue and listening and also a lunch that our hosts prepared and served for us. I was happy that our students were following in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi, who himself looked to Jesus, as one who looked for ways of peace, dialogue and reconciliation, in a world that longs for all of those.
Fr. Steve Patti is pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Raleigh.