Catholic-Muslim dialogue seeks to nurture understanding

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully

The Visitor

Sometimes a simple conversation has the power to change minds and promote understanding.

Jaylani Hussein, a Muslim of Somali descent, has a story to prove it. Once a man confronted him, asking why followers of Islam worship the “moon god.”

Hussein said he took time to talk with the man, explaining this wasn’t true. Sometime later, when Hussein took a CPR class from the same man, the man waived his fee, thanking Hussein for helping him to better understand the faith.

Hussein, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Minnesota outreach and advocacy director, told the story during a panel discussion titled “Living with our Muslim Sisters and Brothers as One Community,” Oct. 16 at the Mary Center in St. Cloud.

The event was organized by the St. Cloud Interfaith Dialogue Group, which hopes it will lead to new opportunities for people of both faiths to grow in understanding of each other.

The story he told, Hussein said, illustrates how conversations can help to build understanding between people of different faith backgrounds.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Father Tony Kroll, a retired priest of the St. Cloud Diocese and a member of the dialogue group. “The Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue group is concerned that the fear and misinformation toward Somali people has increased.”

Father Kroll hopes the panel will be repeated. A similar event was held last April at the Franciscan Convent in Little Falls.

Building community

Hussein, an alum of St. Cloud State University, came to the United States in 1993. Like other Minnesotans, he likes to hunt and fish and talk about the weather, he said.

He said Somalis have become integrated into the larger culture in St. Cloud. Three Somali-Americans are running for political offices: two for city council and one for the school board. Hussein said they are running because they want to be part of the fabric of the community.

“Somali-Americans are not just your taxi drivers and school bus drivers,” he said. “They are your future lawyers and engineers and nurses. Somali-Americans also want to be your councilmen, hopefully your mayor and someday your senator.”

Hussein said he is saddened to hear when a youth leaves the U.S. to fight with terror groups. He compared it to the mentality of youth who join cults.

Youth are very impressionable and they need mentors to talk to them and guide them to make good decisions, he said.

“Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacekeepers for they shall be called the children of God,’ ” Hussein said. “We are living in a time where there are more wars starting than not. Before a war starts, the war call starts, and that is the conversation of ‘us versus them’ fueled by ignorance and misunderstanding. I want [this] to be a community that leads the world in the concept of peace.”

Other members of the panel included Amber Michel, another CAIR representative, and Crosier Father Virgil Petermeier of Onamia.

Michel provided historical perspective, noting that many groups have suffered intolerance in the United States at some point in history, including Native Americans, Catholics, French Protestants, Quakers, Baptists, Mormons, Jews and Muslims.

Father Petermeier, having lived in Indonesia for 36 years, experienced the opposite of discrimination: Christians and Muslims working together. When the Crosier monastery in Indonesia burned in a fire in 2008, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic families helped by providing money, food and clothing, he said.

On the topic of interfaith dialogue, Father Petermeier cited Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” which includes a passage about Islam (see box).

He encouraged both Muslims and Christians to learn more about their own faiths as well as gain greater understanding of the others’.

“When we don’t know enough about the Bible or the Quran, then there is the danger of us talking off the tops of our heads,” Father Petermeier said. “The point is, read good sources. Generalizations are unjust and dangerous.”

For Christians and Muslims to live together in one community, he suggests taking time to meet and visit each other, growing in understanding and praying for and alongside each other.

Taking a first step

Among the attendees at the event was Tehreem Sabir, a Muslim and a 2012 College of St. Benedict alum. A daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she has lived in the United States her entire life. She is earning her master’s degree at St. Cloud State University and teaching English as a Second Language.

“I think [the panel] was a conversation we needed to have,” Sabir said. “We need to keep talking about this more. I did talk to some people who had some negative sentiments, and it was good that we were able to talk about them.”

She said a man at the event who asked a question about Somalis being shy and not wanting to talk “is talking to my friend right now who is a very confident Somali woman. There are beautiful things that came out of this and connections made.”

Teresa Traut, a junior at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, said she learned more about Islam and how many religions have been persecuted through the years. She thinks interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims can help build bridges.

“We worship the same God and we have so much to learn from each other,” Traut said. “Discriminating against each other and telling each other where they are wrong isn’t going to get us anywhere. Learning from each other and talking and doing things like this is going to help us grow together as two faith communities.”

Jama Alimad of Community Grassroots Solutions of St. Cloud said that communication is key for Muslim and Christian relations.

“If you don’t know your neighbor, you fear him,” he said. “One of the best ways to connect is through kids. We have kids at the same school and you should foster your kids in a way where they are connected, and parents can connect, too.”

Jeff Odendahl, coordinator for justice, peace and integrity of creation for the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, attended the event because he knew some of the people involved and wanted to find out more. He said he learned that many Muslim groups have spoken out against ISIS and other terrorist groups.

“People were able to meet each other [through the panel event] and I hope that has lasting benefits,” he said. “The more information we have, the easier it is to talk with each other and [prevent] stereotypes.”

Among the event’s sponsors were the Diocese of St. Cloud Ecumenical Commission, St. Cloud Mission Office, Central Minnesota Catholic Worker and Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.