Fr. Carl Chudy, SX
My initial encounters with Islam began while I was studying theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The ecumenical and interfaith possibilities were abundant there. During my internship as a theology student I worked for two years in Sierra Leone, West Africa. There it is predominately Muslim. The majority of Sierra Leoneans are adherent to Malikite Sunni Islam. Significant portions of Sierra Leonean Muslims are Ahmadis, Shia, and Non-denominational Muslims. Most mosques in Sierra Leone are non-denominational. It was there I learned much of our common love of God and the prophets, the extraordinary generosity, simplicity and respect that speaks much for African peoples, and the deep passion for justice and peace that rises out of their Islamic faith. To this day there is strong collaboration between us.
However, while working 13 years in the Philippines, with little exposure to Islam there, I began to understand with surprising depth, the centrality of interfaith dialogue in my work. One of the areas where we were working was assistance to landless farmers who were trying to dialogue with the government about land titles promised them 20 years prior and never delivered. During this work, clandestine, para-military soldiers, probably from someone in the government, began a systematic campaign to assassinate the leaders of these farmers structured through various organizations, and funded by an NGO in Belgium.
In the early 2000’s, more than 200 were killed. One of the targets of this campaign was a village in an island in the south in Negros where a number of men were killed. Their wives and mothers responded by traveling to Metro-Mania (center for the seat of government) and holding a hunger strike in front of the Department of Agriculture, close to our center. Fifteen days into the hunger strike, weak and lying on cots under a plastic canopy alongside the highway, a local Muslim chaplain and I were called to join them. We were asked to provide some spiritual consolation to this religiously mixed group of women who did not know what the future would hold.
Both he and I agreed that it would be simple. We would both read from our sacred texts, pray to God (Allah) for protection, and then visit each woman by their cots and have a quiet conversation with them. I began with a letter from St. Paul, he from the Qur’an. After our respective prayers, we spent the rest of the afternoon talking individually with each in quiet whispers, hunched over these frail, brave women who shaved their heads in protest. I realized in that interfaith worship, that our common prayer to God to bring justice to the poor and consolation to the grieved hit at the belief and passion of us all, Christian and Muslim.
Furthermore, it was a balm of healing we could only carry together to this valiant community. I knew from that time forward, my energies would be about gathering that same kind of collaborative spiritual healing and revitalization in front of the great challenges and cancers that afflict our communities and world in the name of justice and peace, the Kingdom of God. “The world has grown sufficiently small, the problems that we share across the globe sufficiently large and common…. While plural in so many wonderful ways, morally the human family is one.”
Our mutual desire to come together is in itself encouraging. Yet it is tapping into this deep longing among us all to bridge the divides between us. We naturally seek to dialogue through our common Creator who wills this so. Pope Paul VI, in his first encyclical at the end of Vatican II, Ecclesiam Suam, after the Catholic Church began to look anew at its relationship with those of other faiths (Nostra Aetate), and with ever-changing culture (Guadium et Spes), wrote this: “God Himself took the initiative in the dialogue of salvation. “He hath first loved us.” We, therefore, must be the first to ask for a dialogue with men (others), without waiting to be summoned to it…” (72)
An important discovery for me in the last few years is the particular perspective of our Muslim friends, beginning with my partner at the hunger strike some years ago. “The Prophet Muhammad did not hesitate to listen to others, be they idolaters, People of the Book, or fellow Muslims.” I saw this too in my interaction with the Islamic Society of North America, Islamic Network Group, Interfaith Youth Core, and Muslim centers in our area. We worked with Groundwell to bring letters of support to local Muslim centers during this distressing time of Islamaphobia, particularly within this volatile election cycle in the United States.
In those we visited the outpouring of gratitude and a resolve to work together with their non-Muslim neighbors to overcome religious hate which was a prominent feature. Discovering our mutual desire to connect with each other in meaningful ways is heartening. Between Catholics and Muslims, we share much in our hope in the dialogue of life, action and works, theological exchange, and religious experience.