Cookies, conversations catalyze local Christian-Muslim dialogue

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Ayan Omar came to America as a Somali Muslim refugee when she was just 5 years old. Now she is a wife and mother, a language arts teacher at Tech High School in St. Cloud and an advocate for interfaith dialogue.

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Ayan Omar speaks during the “Living with our Muslim Sisters and Brothers as One Community” event at Mary Center in St. Cloud April 30. Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Visitor

Omar was one of three panelists who spoke April 30 at the Mary Center Community Room, located in the former St. Mary’s Cathedral school building. The event, titled “Living with our Muslim Sisters and Brothers as One Community,” was the third in a series aimed at developing a wider understanding of the Christian and Muslim faiths.

Basema Amro, a Jordanian Muslim immigrant, and Crosier Father Virgil Petermeier completed the panel. Kevin LaNave, director of The Center for Service Learning and Social Change, facilitated the discussion.

“As Catholics, we believe that all people are created by one God,” said Father Petermeier, a St. Rosa native who spent 36 years as a missionary priest in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. “That is our belief. The goal of our life together as Christians is to work for all people to become one so that we can truly live as brothers and sisters created in the image of God. We need to begin by looking at our similarities rather than our differences.”

Omar launched the panel discussion, sharing her experience as a Muslim woman living in America. She started with a definition.

“There are two terms: immigrant and refugee — two terms often confused by many that tell a different story,” Omar said. “While an immigrant decides to migrate under their own choice, a refugee is often forced to alter all that they have ever known to be tangible by a single rise of the sun or darkening of the sky.”

Omar said she felt inadequate when asked to be a panelist. But she continues to teach the lesson she learned from her mother — a lesson, she said, that will build bridges across borders, across faiths and across cultures.

“She taught us to be kind. All the faith, all the scriptures and all the life lessons come down to that one thing: be kind.”

Sharing cookies

Retired Father Tony Kroll also envisions building good relationships between Muslims and Christians. He organized a “cookie party” April 29 at his home in Sauk Rapids where he invited both Muslims and Christians, including panelists Omar and Amro, to help bake cookies for the dialogue session.

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Marilou Sommers works with Basema Amro to make a batch of chocolate-oatmeal bars during the cookie party April 29. Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Visitor

“The idea was to help people get to know one another,” Father Kroll said. “We do a lot of talking but not a lot of meeting. I talk with people who have never met an immigrant or a refugee; they only hear secondhand stories about them. I want to get more people out on the streets who have met someone who has come here to America and be able to say, ‘I met a [refugee or immigrant] and she or he is nice.’

“I have a big hope,” he said, “that we could learn how to love each other. I believe in mutual enrichment of cultures — we don’t have it all together, they don’t have it all together — and we can all improve.”

Henry and MaryAnn Padgett, parishioners of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids, were among those who helped bake cookies. While MaryAnn mixed the dough, Henry made friends with Amro’s 1-year-old son, Riyad.

“I feel more comfortable now to know Christians,” Amro said. “It is good to know about different religions — how do they pray, how do they live, what holidays do they celebrate, what are their traditions? I am happy to know people now to talk about these things.”

Amro came to America two years ago as an immigrant after marrying her husband, Anas Dodin, who emigrated from the West Bank in 2001 and became an American citizen.

In Jordan, Amro earned a master’s degree in educational psychology. While working on becoming accredited here in the U.S., she attends classes at the St. Cloud Technical and Community College and teaches in the early childhood program at Hands Across the World, a St. Cloud organization that provides language and living skills to newly arrived immigrants and refugees.

Dana Howard, also of Sacred Heart, brought some of her children along. They played with Amro’s son and Omar’s daughter while Howard helped with the cookies.

“I like to bake and the idea of that being a vehicle in some small way for better Muslim-Christian relationships was something I wanted to be a part of,” Howard said. “I thought it would be a good experience for my kids. Acceptance and openness have to be taught and modeled.”
Before the cookie party, Howard didn’t know what image her children had of Muslims.

“Now, when we hear the word ‘Muslim,’ we all have a memory of a fun evening where we met new people, [observed] Muslim prayer, ate cookies and played with new friends. Our family now has some Muslim friends.”

Comparing traditions

At the dialogue session, organizers planned an intentionally long break so participants could get to know one another. Mimi and Dick Bitzan, parishioners of St. Paul in St. Cloud, attended the event.

“We are honored to meet new members of the community as they arrive as refugees,” Mimi said. “In getting to know their stories, I appreciated the courage of these women and all those who have left their homes to be safe. I can’t imagine how much it would take to leave behind everything they have ever known to come to a new place. I am impressed by their resilience and their strength.”

During the break, Mimi spoke with a Somali man about Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunup until sundown.

“I was struck by the similarities in our shared image of an all-loving, merciful God, or Allah,” she said. “It was also interesting to hear about the Muslim practice of Ramadan — fasting, praying and almsgiving — like we observe during our Christian season of Lent.”

Since Ramadan this year begins on June 18, Mimi remarked to the man that, in Minnesota, June has the longest days of sunlight during the whole year.

“He was glad the days were long because he could truly feel hunger. This makes him more aware of others who do not have food and reminds him that he should help them,” she said.

“I was challenged and impressed by his explanation of fasting during Ramadan,” she added. “I realize I’ve got some work to do myself.”

Although the event was intended to continue respectful dialogue about faith, some tensions flared when questions shifted to topics like government funding and health care.“I am happy that people come and ask their questions so we can listen to their concerns,” Father Petermeier said. “We need to get away from generalizing about Muslims, and for them to not generalize us. Our call is to have each one of us mutually call the best out of each other. And to say that there is a God, one God, and we are not afraid to talk about it.”

Strengthening interfaith relationships has been a priority with Bishop Donald Kettler. In December he met with leaders from the Central Minnesota Islamic Center following acts of vandalism perpetrated there. And, last month, he invited area faith leaders to the chancery to “get to know one another better and talk about ways to work more closely together to build communities of welcome, acceptance and peace,” he wrote in his April 24 column in The Visitor.

He also supports the efforts of the Interfaith Dialogue Group of St. Cloud, who organized the panel. The event’s sponsors included the St. Cloud Mission Office, Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, St. John’s Abbey, the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict and the St. Cloud Diocesan Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Commission.