Marching with Muslims – celebrating radical diversity

About ten years ago I got a call from a private investigator who was worried for me. It was a courtesy call, ostensibly. Considered beyond the polite and calm words that were exchanged, it bordered on fear-mongering. The crux of it was that this private investigator had come across my name during his investigation of a Muslim community from the small rural area just outside of town. That Muslim community had in the spring of 2008 invited me to attend and speak at their first annual parade and rally to take place downtown. I had of course agreed and I was looking forward to the march. And then I got this call.

The P.I. was worried for me, for my reputation. Did I know these are not the Muslims who meet in town; they are a second group from a rural community outside of town? Yes, I knew that. I also knew that they are Shi’a while the mosque in town is Sunni. I also knew then that the in-town group was comprised mostly of Arab Americans who were first or second-generation immigrants while the Deposit group was predominantly African American. The Private Investigator told me he was investigating the rural, African American, Shi’a group for suspicion of links to domestic terrorism. He had called to give me the heads up before I associated myself too closely.

I thanked the investigator for his call and told him I would consider what he had said. The next call I made for to Dick Antoun, professor emeritus of Anthropology at the university, author of Understanding Fundamentalism, and member of the congregation. Dick’s focus had been the Middle East and Islam. When I described the call from the private investigator and the preceding invitation from the Muslims, Dick was very excited for me. First off, he agreed with my suspicion about the private investigator. Dick wondered who he was investigating for, and suggested the fellow might be self-appointed and thus not a reliable source. Nonetheless, Dick said I should certainly go in with my eyes open.

Dick couldn’t tell me much about the rural Muslim community. They were reclusive back then in 2008. I said they were aware of that and were now trying to step out into the community, to build up some connections and goodwill. Dick was excited about the movement and direction of this Muslim group, and made me promise to tell him about the experience afterward.

I really miss having conversations like that with Dick. He has since died. He had been greatly respected in our congregation, over at the university, and throughout the Muslim community in our town. One of the hidden blessings of most faith communities is that they are filled with extraordinary people like Dick. I find I am wiser with a community around me.

A few weeks later I found myself marching down main street with Muslims on our way to the courthouse steps for the rally. Members of my congregation had supported my presence, several of them joining in the march with us. There only a few people along the sidelines protesting.

The Muslim community had asked specifically if I would talk on the theme of unity. And I did speak a little about unity there on the courthouse steps that chilly spring afternoon. I spoke more, however, about diversity – about the intentional diversity that we call pluralism. I mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. and asked them to put their trust in the American vision of unity that says, ‘we are one’ not because we are all the same, but because we are all together in the effort to build a more perfect union. Our different faiths are part of the beautiful mosaic of our country. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, we are one.

So, what is our religious community’s role in all this? Our modern and progressive congregation is practically a Multi-religious group unto itself. This means we know something of pluralism and religious diversity. Part of our role is to offer wisdom and encouragement to each other along the way; part of our role is to show up and share our perspectives in the mix. It means a lot to folks who find themselves marginalized and vulnerable in society to know it is not just the voice of one radical preacher with them, but the voices of a full community of faith.