Having been ordained over three years now, I have come to appreciate the most life-giving aspect of serving as Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit is being a priest in my hometown of Verona. The role of Rector has allowed me to reconnect with old friends and establish many new relationships. The most recent connection was made upon the opening of the Verona Islamic Center.
In March 2018, a local media source announced that the former Beth Ahm Synagogue in town had been purchased by a group that would turn the building into an Islamic Center. Having gotten to know the former Rabbi since arriving at Holy Spirit, I was excited to build another relationship with people of a different faith. As the property where the temple (now mosque) sat was one block from our church, I was elated the land would remain a house of worship.
Shortly after learning the news, I gathered the other local clergy members to see how we might welcome this new congregation of faith. Four Christian ministers (with varying degrees of beliefs about doctrine, discipline and theology) gathered to strategize how to properly embrace our new neighbors. We then scheduled a meeting with Dr. Montaser Awad, president of the center and other members of his congregation. We learned about each other through stories and began to understand more about each other’s traditions.
A letter of welcome, peace and inclusion was presented to our newest neighbors signed by four clergy leaders from Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic, First Presbyterian Verona, First Congregational Verona and Holy Spirit. During our meeting on Wednesday, June 6, leaders from the Islamic Center decided to invite the clergy and members of our congregation to their “break fast” meal at 8:30 PM on Saturday, June 9. With a rather short planning window, their congregation shared what became the highest level of hospitality I have ever experienced.
More than 20 Christians arrived at the mosque at 8 PM to receive an overview of their center and be introduced to their holy month of Ramadan. At sunset we entered their worship space where we – the guests – sat in chairs directly in the middle of the room, men in the first row and women in the second. Devout Muslim men in front of us and women behind us listened to the Quran chanted in Arabic. All worshipers offered prayers by bowing and kneeling. I was rather moved by the devotion of these people of faith.
Just before the start of the service we joined them in breaking their fast by sharing dates and water. After the service we were treated to an amazing meal while continuing to get to know each other. As we left, the children of the Islamic Center presented each of us with a basket overflowing with fresh fruit to take home.
The true highlight of the evening was when 18-year-old Yasmin, daughter of Dr. Awad, shared that she had graduated from Verona High School in 2017 and was now studying medicine, much like her dad, who is a surgeon. Yasmin said that Verona is the only town she has ever lived in and expressed her gratitude to be able to now attend a house of worship in that very same hometown. Wow did that resonate with me! Yes! I agree; it is great to celebrate your faith in the town where you grew up.
It was an honor to worship with my new neighbors and I am thankful we have begun a relationship within a month of their opening the Islamic Center. Our interfaith relations in Verona have just multiplied immeasurably, and I look forward to more great events grounded in faith in God.