ITMO: A Conversation About Faith

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Below is the edited and abridged version of the segment from the In the Moment.  For the audio of the entire conversation, click here.

Lori Walsh:

Welcome to In the Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. South Dakotans are talking about faith, and it can be a difficult conversation to have. Some conversations divide, others foster respect and tolerance. What does tolerance mean? What is it like to be a Muslim person in the state right now? What do you want to know about Islam, about Christianity? What are the values that connect us beyond religion? This hour we're going to talk about faith, about Islam, about Christianity, about social justice, and about what all this looks like living in South Dakota right now.

Last week, two Watertown pastors were joined by a member of the Brookings Islamic center for an interfaith dialog to discuss and answer questions about their differences, their similarities, and coming together as cousins through their faith and respect. The participants of that dialogue join us today. We have Reverend Carl Kline of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Watertown and Reverend Portia Corbin, missionary for Youth and Young Adult Ministry. She's with Trinity Episcopal Church in Watertown. And we have Professor Fathi Halaweish, a chemistry and biochemistry instructor at South Dakota State University.

Lori Walsh:

Let's talk about where this all began as far as coming together at this particular time and having this conversation together, and with a couple dozen members of the community as well. Reverend Kline, do you want to start with that?

Reverend Kline:

Sure. I'm serving the church in Watertown as an interim minister while they're in a search for a more permanent pastor. I come out of the interfaith dialogue in Brookings, and we've been going for something like six or seven years now, where people from different faiths will meet once a month. We eat together, we generally have a common theme that we want to explore, and over the years we've gotten to know each other and to come to, really a respectful understanding of different people's traditions.

And so, I've known Fathi Halaweish for quite some time, and I've met Portia more recently since I've been in Watertown. I brought the idea to our church council that maybe as an afternoon program on Sunday afternoons, we could begin to look at the different religious traditions and try to better understand our relationships with them as Christian people.

The church council was really quite affirming of that. They thought that would be a good program for us to explore, and so we had the first one a week ago this last Sunday with Fathi, and Portia helped to facilitate that, and that was our beginning.

Lori Walsh:

Dr. Fathi, tell me, what do you bring to the table when you first are sort of invited to do something like this? Is this something that you're finding yourself do more and more of, answering more questions, having more conversations? Or, have you always been having those conversations as a South Dakotan and now maybe folks are paying attention a little more?

Dr. Fathi Halaweish:

Actually, we are having this kind of conversation for a long time, since I've been here in South Dakota for more than 22 years. So I've been talking, and invited to all churches and all non-profit organizations here in South Dakota and beyond that. I've talked to all schools and Boys & Girls Clubs, and every avenue you can imagine. I think its a matter of talking about how good the community that we are living in here is. It's a very accommodating, very friendship, and we cannot ask for more than that.

It's an open dialogue, open discussion, full respect, neighbor-to-neighbor talks, and this is what we are- tells everything about us here living in South Dakota.

Lori Walsh:

Have the conversations changed over the years, Dr. Fathi? Over 22 years, have the questions people ask you, or the things they're curious about evolved?

Dr. Fathi Halaweish:

Of course. The question and conversation has changed from time to time, based on emerging issues that will come from time to time. We know so many changes going around, there are so many things that will come to us here in [inaudible 00:04:59] about different groups that they have, some radical thoughts and radical behavior, and unexplained, and unacceptable behavior. Of course we will bring all of these questions to us and we have to explain to whoever brings this question, what the Islamic [inaudible 00:05:23] so, we always have to educate ourself, educate our fellow neighbors and citizens here about the peaceful mission and the peaceful thoughts of Islam all over the history.

Lori Walsh:

Reverend Corbin, let's bring you into conversation. You work a lot with youth and young adults, is that correct?

Reverend Corbin:

That is correct, yes I work with youth and young adults all across the Episcopal Church in South Dakota.

Lori Walsh:

Is there a generational difference between what you're hearing from young adults as they approach the conversation of Christianity and how it intersects with Islam?

Reverend Corbin:

I do see a generational difference. It's interesting; I find that young people are often more willing to be a part of these conversations, and more willing to learn more about other faiths. They tend to be a little more open, and so it's kind of an interesting place to be as we see people kind of grow and change.

Lori Walsh:

Dr. Fathi, I'm wondering if there are questions that you consider disrespectful, or questions that you bristle at when people ask you at an open forum, in a public dialogue.

Dr. Fathi Halaweish:

Not at all. Any question is a good question, and if we want to understand each other, we have to quiet to talk openly. Whatever in our mind, we are quite open to any question, because I think without any rude question, how can we understand each other?

Lori Walsh:

Right. Reverend Kline, one of the conversations I had with a friend the other day, we were talking about Christianity and explaining that to other people, and someone came up to me and said, "How do Christians feel about homosexuality?" I wouldn't know how to answer that, you go to five different Christian churches you might get five different answers. So, how do the questions about Islam and Christianity sort of play out when it's difficult to generalize?

Reverend Kline:

Well it's terribly difficult to generalize when you talk about Christianity because Christianity is a huge umbrella. It covers so many different theologies, so many different denominations, and so it's very difficult to generalize. One of my difficulties with the way in which the public image is of Christianity these days, is that it tends to be an image of a very exclusive part of the umbrella, and in fact there are many of us, many of us particularly in mainline denominations in the Protestant community, that are quite open to understanding other traditions. We don't feel like our understanding is based on sand, we believe it's based there firmly, and it doesn't hurt us- it doesn't hurt anybody. In fact, it helps all of us if we can learn to live with each other in a respectful and a nonviolent way.

So, many of us I think in the Christian tradition, although it's not always highlighted in the media, are very interested in learning about other paths to God, and other messengers that have come to other people that lead them to God, because many of us I think, feel like we're all on different paths, but we're going in the same direction.

Lori Walsh:

What about the Great Commission, in the Christian New Testament where Jesus says go and make these disciples, when you have an interfaith conversation or you meet others who are not of faith, do you have a responsibility as Christians to convert them, as it were? 

Reverend Kline:

No, I think that that conversion always has an element of coercion. I think that people come to faith through their own understanding, and by their own path, and basically, they come to Christianity because of the modeled behavior of people who are Christians. Gandhi said once that the whole world would be Christian in one generation, if Christians practiced what Jesus demonstrated and what he taught, and I think that's true. I think when Christians actually act in the way of Jesus, then other people are respectful of that tradition.

Lori Walsh:

Dr. Fathi, is there a comparison to the Christian Great Commission, where people in the Muslim tradition- is there an expectation or a hope to bring others into the faith?

Dr. Fathi Halaweish:

Yes, expectation is, there is no compulsion of religion. It means that you cannot force anybody to come to the religion. In the meantime, we do not believe also in preaching out, so I can not go out and preach out people about Islam. People should know Islam from the behavior and the act of Muslims, which is the good behavior, not the bad one. So because Islam is based on [inaudible 00:11:33]. The word Islam, it means itself "peace", so if the word is the meaning of the religion, is peace, so everything that comes out of this is peaceful. So people should know Islam through the behavior, and through the good call of loving and caring and compassionate about each other.

But we do not believe, and it's not in our faith to go and force someone to be a Muslim, or anything like that.

Lori Walsh:

Reverend Corbin, let's talk about peace, and then let's talk about violence, because much violence has been connected to faith of all kinds. How do you as a Christian approach the notion of violence that comes at the hands of Christians throughout history, and today.

Reverend Corbin:

Oh, that's a great question, and I'm so glad that you asked it because that is a very, very, very important thing to be talking about today, is that there has been much violence done in the name of God and Christianity throughout history, and we as Christians should be wrestling with that, and should not forget that difficult and terrible part of our history. I mean, especially when that comes to relating to our Muslim brothers and sisters. I think it's important to note that as people of faith, one of the things that we really should strive for is of course, peace, but I think one of the ways that we begin to enter into that is by doing just what we're doing today, by talking with one another, and becoming friends with one another, as we learn about each other's faith traditions, as we learn about each other as humans, and really meet one another as human people.

Lori Walsh:

Okay, same question for you then, how do handle violence that is enacted in the name of your religion?

Dr. Fathi Halaweish:

Of course this is not acceptable at all, it is not Islamic at all for someone to commit any violence in the name of faith, because faith is always calling upon all of us to speak to each other, how to live with each other, how to care about neighbor, how to care about our family and friendship, and the community, and the whole world in general. So this is what the [inaudible 00:14:36], but we of course, we denounce and do not accept any kind of violence in the name of Islam, because basically these are radicals everywhere, are those who are committing crime by the name of the Islam, are not Muslim. God has forbidden us from hurting ourselves, how about hurting other people? That's not acceptable at all. It is not in any form or any kind of call, or any verse in the religion that will call about violence or hurting other people.

So, this is the main thing that we always talk about and explain to all people who are coming to us for questions, just to show them and share with them what all the teaching of Islam is saying about that. So the teaching Islam is totally innocent of any violence that any people commit in the name of the faith.

Lori Walsh:

So this is an impossible question. Reverend Kline, where does it come from then- people who use holy text or sacred text, or religious tradition as a reason to intact violence- where does that come from, and how does it become reformed?

Reverend Kline:

It was true of me, I grew up what I would call a literalist- I took the Bible literally, and I think that most people do. In Sunday School, you learn certain biblical stories, and you take those as fact, you take them literally. But in the last, more than a century, there's been an effort to look at scripture- and I'm talking here about Christian scriptures- to look at them in context, and to try to understand what the original message to the original audience, rather than simply taking a passage, maybe even a phrase, extracting that from its context, and taking it literally in terms of us today.

So when you begin to put these different things in context, you begin to understand that perhaps, the message is different than if you'd took it literally. Just thinking in the last week, one of the lectionary readings was of where Jesus says to the disciples, "Nobody comes to the Father but by me."

If you just take that phrase, then in fact, Christianity is exclusive, and you have to write off everybody else in the world who happens to be Hindu, or Muslim, or Bahai, or whatever they happen to be, because they're not going by way of Jesus.

Well, Jesus was talking to his disciples who still didn't understand who he was. It wasn't a message for the whole world forever, it was a message to his disciples, trying to help them understand who he really was. So I think people need to read their holy books in context, rather than simply extracting a passage that gives them permission that they believe they should do.

Lori Walsh:

How hard do we have to work on our faith? How hard do we have to sort of show up to learn our own history, and then to reach out and learn someone else's as well?

Reverend Corbin:

We have to work so hard, everyday, all day. Our faith should be continuous, we should always be striving to learn more about our own faith, about our history. We talked in the last half hour how important is is to remember our history, and that's even expanded once we are learning more own faith- it is important to reach out and expand, and learn about others.

Our faith should never be stationary or static. We should always be striving and working toward more and more and more, and that's no easy task, because it takes great humility.

Lori Walsh:

Dr. Halaweish, same question. How much do you have to concentrate on your own faith, and sort of grow as a man of faith throughout your lifetime?

Dr. Fathi Halaweish:

The way it works is in order to understand my faith fully, I have to respect and understand other faith as well. As a matter of fact, it is in our faith: I am not a believer of God if I do not believe and respect other faith that has been revealed by God. So, it is a basic understanding in our faith that we have to understand others, and we have to communicate [inaudible 00:21:09] other, respect each other. So, I cannot live without other people around me, and this is how God created us. It means respect and love in order to build a family, community, society as so on.

So it is a basic understanding in our faith. Those who are committing something beyond this are not really understanding their faith. These are people that they take out of the context, and they explain it's based on their agenda or their political, or hate something. So they are using the faith to help their agenda, nothing more. So it is a call upon all of us to fully understand our holy book in order to peacefully, and survive until we meet God in the "Day of Judgment".

Reverend Kline:

Fathi said in terms of working at the faith, it's one of the things I really admire about Muslims. They pray five times a day. Devout Muslims take that very seriously. I have to confess that I don't pray five times a day. I don't make that a part of my daily life, and I don't many Christians who do do that.

They spend a month in fasting from sunup to sundown. I think that fasting has pretty much disappeared from the Christian sense of spiritual discipline, so there are things in the Muslim tradition that for me as a Christian, it would do well for me to integrate in to my own life, to work harder at those spiritual disciplines like pilgrimage, like fasting, like prayer.

Lori Walsh:

Reverend Kline, are there traditions for that in the Judeo-Christian tradition for fasting, for more structured prayer than maybe what we see in most Christian's lives today?

Reverend Kline:

Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, we have this story of Jesus fasting before he really began his ministry for forty days in the wilderness. I don't know many of us who take that seriously as a preparatory discipline for our ministry. Not many people are going to do forty days, but even doing a couple days, or three days. I think that these spiritual disciplines are in the tradition, but we're not making very good use of them.

Lori Walsh:

We have a question from a listener, and well, I'll just read it for you, and then consider it for a minute. We'll take turns, but they're wondering what's the most important thing each of you want us to know about the Muslim-Christian relationship.

Muslim-Christian relationship- what's the most important thing that you really want to impress? Portia, should we start with you?

Reverend Corbin:

The most important thing for me, it really is, like we talked about earlier, that we can be friends and that we should be friends- there's no reason not to. You said right at the very beginning that we're cousins- I know that's a term that Cora likes to use, we're cousins- and I think that's beautiful. I really would just want to impress on people that even here in South Dakota, there are Muslims among us who are our neighbors, and we should be reaching out and becoming friends with them.

Lori Walsh:

Reverend Kline, most important thing about the Muslim-Christian relationship.

Reverend Kline:

Well I think that word "cousins", and I'm not sure people always understand where Islam comes from, but we have the same forefather in our traditions, and that's Father Abraham.

Ishmael, the first-born of Abraham- Muslims trace their heritage back to Ishmael. Jews and Christians trace their heritage back to the second-born of Abraham, to Issac, so we're cousins. I understand that even in the best of families, cousins don't always get along. There are things that happen in the family life that separate them, but our origins are the same. Most Muslims have a very good knowledge of the Bible, particularly the Hebrew scriptures, sometimes better than most Christians. So we're attached way back there in our religious history.

Lori Walsh:

Dr. Halaweish, what is the most important thing you want people to know about the relationship between Muslims and Christians, your thoughts there?

Dr. Fathi Halaweish:

The way I understand it- the way I grew up, even before I moved to the United States- is it, we have a lot to share. We have a lot to celebrate together in terms of our good values. The basic teachings are the same. If we hold the textbook or the holy book side by side, you cannot see that much of a difference. All of them call for love and peace, and support, and all kind of messages. The message has been revealed as my friend Dr. Kline said that this is all the same- they are revealed at a different time.

So we have a lot to share, we have a lot in common. Let's stick with that and maybe, as a human being, there are some differences, and some different interpretations that may come from time to time. But we have to keep educating ourselves. The more we educate ourselves, the world will be much better world for us now, for our kids and for our grandkids, so this is what I always say, that understanding and education is the biggest thing for us to survive and support each other.

Lori Walsh:

Talking about kids and grandkids, Dr. Halaweish, how challenging is it to be in a Christian majority state, and raising Muslim children throughout generations?

Dr. Fathi Halaweish:

To be honest, I've been living here in South Dakota for a number of years and lived in other parts of the state, and Europe as well. I haven't heard or haven't seen against my kids or against people around us. Everybody is respectful, you know? The school system is very supportive, my kids are all of top of their classes, there wasn't any discrimination, you name it and how can I say? My youngest son is just finishing high school and he is enjoying all of his support from his friends, and there's nothing abnormal that I should say. All that I can mention is that everybody is supportive, everybody is a friend, everybody is a good neighbor, and this is what people should understand.

It's all I think because we always try to out each other, people around us, show them who we are, teach them about what you are. We cannot sit down here, assuming that people will know about us. No, it is a duty upon all of us to go out and teach, and communicate with other people, so at least people should know. Neighbors should know each other, people should know who you are, and I talked to all the school systems, so I have to [inaudible 00:29:31] them people about who we are. They invited us, we invited them, and the kind of interfaith dialogue, to have been doing it for a number of years, they did a fantastic job here in Brookings and Sioux Falls. So as I said, I have not seen any kind of complaint I can say about it, or what we have seen. The law enforcement, everybody's a friend- everybody's a neighbor. 

Lori Walsh:

Everyone's a neighbor. Reverend Kline, I'm going to give you the last word. What's something you want to leave South Dakotans who are listening today with, as it relates to sort of interfaith dialogue and how to have that after the program is going forward. What are the steps?

Reverend Kline:

Well I think that sometimes when I hear Christians asking questions of Muslims, particular in an age where we see a lot of religious violence, I just want my Christian brothers and sisters to look inward. I was thinking this morning about that passage in scripture where Jesus talks the speck in our brother's eye and log in our own. Sometimes I feel that that's the situation. I mean, I have no sympathy for terrorists of whatever religious branch they come from, and yet, I think that there's terrible terror that people feel when a drone flies over their home, and often times drops a bomb.

I don't think that as Christians, we take the time to look inward at what sometimes our country is doing that creates a situation of terror in the world. That's not to say that the kind of terror that takes place in countries from radical extremists in the Muslim tradition, but we're supposed to be a Christian nation. So I think that's my major concern, because Muslims do get criticized by many people, and many Christian people in this country, but I'm not sure that we always look inward, which it seems to me we need to do first.

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