They came to break bread – and barriers.
Fourteen Christian pastors, representing 11 York County churches, had lunch with neighboring Muslims Thursday, sharing the common beliefs of their faiths.
The meeting was born out of a letter signed by 24 York County pastors – many of them in attendance Thursday – calling on their church members to embrace Muslims as their brothers and sisters.
The Rev. Sam McGregor, pastor at Allison Creek Presbyterian Church near Lake Wylie, started the letter because of recent threats against Muslims nationwide and possibly those at Holy Islamville, a Muslim community that has called York County home for more than 30 years. About 10 families live on the site near York, and other Muslims live nearby. Many of these Muslims have family members who are Christian.
The letter, which opposed any acts of violence against “anyone due to their religious beliefs,” prompted Thursday’s sharing.
During lunchtime conversations over salmon, cantori chicken, onion bread and tea, Christians and Muslims shared common interests.
The talk at one table was about grandchildren, shopping and fashion.
A second table was an almost stereotypical gathering of pastors, with conversation about the length of sermons and prayers and how each became a man of God. In this case, it was Saeed Shakir, a graduate of York Comprehensive High School, who was doing the talking, explaining the steps he took to become Islamville's informal mayor. The community's spiritual leader is El Sheikh Syed Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani.
The talk at a third table was of politics and baseball.
They also shared their faiths, acknowledging that while they disagree on some points, “there is nothing we cannot overcome,” said the Rev. Barry Lambert of Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Sharon. “Perfect love casts out fears, and we are working on that perfect love.
Umar Bowers of Charlotte and a member of Islamville said the bigger picture of what America will become motivates him to attend such interfaith gatherings.
“Where will America’s homophobia lead?” he asked. “What is the future of America for our children, our grandchildren?” He said people need to press pause before they react and “find out what folks are about.”
“We believe in peace, prosperity and love, and to allow the true beliefs of our mutual faith to shine through,” Bowers said.
He and Shakir said the Muslims of Islamville are Americans and that the hateful religious emotions nationally and worldwide have a local effect. They hoped Thursday’s conversation would resonate not only locally but worldwide.
“Let’s understand what’s right. The Islamomophobic dangers are not my America,” Bowers said.
“And not my Christianity,” added the Rev. JoAnne Sizoo of Grace Presbyterian Church of Fort Mill.
Shakir said he hoped Thursday’s meeting would lead to more interfaith exchanges. “I hope that the pastors who came will go back to their churches and speak what God allows them to speak,” he said.
The Rev. Neill McKay of Beth Shiloh Presbyterian Church in York said the changes coming out of Thursday’s meeting are not as hard as many envision. “It’s not hard to to sit down and know your neighbor. That’s Jesus’ entire message.”
The Rev. John O’Kain, also a Presbyterian minister, said the easiest change to make will come in how he refers to Islamville.
“Instead of the Muslims of Islamville, it will be my friends at Islamville,” he said.
O’Kain said after a story on McGregor’s letter appeared in The Herald, there was an online post that “friendship was a two-way street.” He said the post had the spirit of suspicion.
“Faith, grace is a one-way street, and grace was extended to us today,” he said.
“It was important to sign the letter, but I’m deeply honored to be invited, to accept that grace.”
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066
Pastors who attended Thursday’s meeting at Holy Islamville near York: Gayle Montgomery, Jeff Lingle, Barry Lambert, Christine Stoxen, Jeff Bryan, Edgar McCall, Robert Moss, JoAnne Sizoo, John O’Kain, Tom Sherer, David Brown, James Williams, Neill McKay and Sam McGregor Jr. Representatives from Holy Islamville included Saeed Shakir, Umar Bowers, and Dr. Jawairriya Shahid.