Earlier this month, I went to “Common Ground,” a gathering at the American Baptist Seminary of the West aimed at bringing American Baptists in the Bay Area together with local Muslims for the first time in a formal way.
This was the first of three such events which will take place across the country. Similar gatherings will take place at Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas City and the Proctor School of Theology in Richmond, VA. The Rev. Roy Medley, Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches USA described how the idea began with encounters that he had with Baptist groups in Lebanon and later in the Republic of Georgia (former Soviet Union). In both countries, Baptist leaders had challenged him to return to the US and to work to build relationships with Muslims here that would be as functional as those developed in those countries.
Baptists and Muslims have some history of working together in this country. In 2008, the Baptist World Alliance (of which the American Baptist Churches USA are members), responded to “A Common Word Between You and Us,” an invitiation from Muslim scholars around the world for Christians to enter into dialogue around issues of faith and action (see the BWA response).
The Common Ground session began with a panel moderated by Academic Dean LeAnn Flesher which included Rev. Dr. James Hopkins, the Senior Pastor at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland and former president of the Alliance of Baptists; Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Pastor Emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, a predominantly African-American church; Ameena Jandali, Content Director and co-founder of Islamic Networks Group (ING), and Imam Faheem Shuaibe, Imam of Masjidul Waritheen in Oakland, affiliated with the American Society of Muslims. Individually, and then together, they addressed questions of why Baptists and Muslims should be interested in dialogue with each other, how they understand love of God and love of neighbor, and how the two communities might work together to address issues in the broader community.
There was opportunity for round table conversation on those same questions, though Baptists far outnumbered Muslims within the 50 or so people present. Still, for many it was the first step in encountering one another in such a way. As Imam Shuaib said, “how can you cooperate with each other if without talking to each other and understanding what the other is saying?”
Although it was not intentionally planned that way, the Common Ground dialogue took place during World Intefaith Harmony Week (February 1-7). There are hopes for more dialogue in the future, especially since ABSW recently leased some of its facilities to Zaytuna College, the first college to focus on training Muslim scholars who are equipped to work with others to create a more open, multicultural, and tolerant society.