When Christians and Muslims come together in the US

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SHAFAQNA - Nashvillians may boast of their liberal “little blue dot” status in the red state of Tennessee, but area Muslims and their Christian friends say the city isn’t always as open-minded as it thinks.

They’re trying to move it and the rest of Middle Tennessee past fragile tolerance and into acceptance with big events, casual dinners and even a new provocatively titled book, “How Not To Kill a Muslim.”

Not everyone will welcome those efforts. A national survey released Thursday by Nashville-based LifeWay Research found 39 percent of adults believe Islam is a threat to religious freedom in the U.S., and that number jumps to 55 percent for evangelical Christians.

That’s the post-9/11 status quo, said Daoud Abudiab, president of the Faith & Culture Center in Nashville. The answer, he and others engaged in the effort insist, is person-to-person relationships. That means Christians and Muslims being willing to get past sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

A Pew Research Center survey released last year revealed only 38 percent of Americans know a Muslim.

“We’re here, we’re American, we’re contributing, and we don’t want to walk around looking over our shoulders,” Abudiab said. “For us to have the great city that we all want to have, we have to be proactive, do the work and create this safe environment for everyone to contribute.”

The outlook is promising, he said. Tickets sold out in three days for Nashville’s third-annual community iftar celebration — or sunset breaking of Muslims’ daily fasts during their most holy season of Ramadan. Co-sponsored by the Faith & Culture Center | Our Muslim Neighbor and the Metro Human Relations Commission, it will bring together 300 Christians, Muslims and others at Music City Center on Tuesday for dinner and an explanation of Islam and the culture around it.

But Melody Fowler-Green, the commission’s director, points out that Al-Farooq mosque in Nashville was vandalized only two years ago. It was defaced in 2010, too. There’s a minority voice on Islam that demands attention, she said.

After Tuesday’s iftar, ongoing efforts to put Christians and Muslims together socially include A Seat at the Table, a Faith & Culture Center program that encourages people in both faiths to host small dinners and then puts together mixed groups to attend.

Participating in one was life-changing for Mark Saline, a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor who moved to Columbia, Tenn., from Seattle in 2011. The mosque in Columbia suffered a firebombing in 2008.

“When I was in Seattle, I had no Muslim friends,” Saline said. “I’d been in a couple of interfaith dialogues, but that was just two hours. People talk, and then you go home.

“I’d say A Seat at the Table is transformative in that I have friendships with two Muslims that I didn’t have before, and I’m more enriched because of it.”

Joshua Graves, teaching minister at Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, led more than 50 people in his congregation through a series of lessons on Islam and meetings with Muslims. He wrote about those, plus about his research on evangelical-Muslim relationships, in his book “How Not To Kill a Muslim.” He said the title was meant to grab attention by naming the worst-case scenario, then scaling back to more common interactions.

Feeding fear and hatred of Muslims has become a money-making endeavor, Graves said.

“Since 9/11, some Christians have let politicians serve as the preachers and theologians,” he said. “I think Jesus’ vision for humanity and the Sermon on the Mount is far more compelling than anything the politicians are serving up.”

If people aren’t able to participate in a formal getting-to-know-you program, they can take action themselves, Abudiab said. Muslim neighbors, coworkers and acquaintances are open to questions.

He uses his wife, a nurse, as an example. It took seven years for a colleague to work up the courage to ask about her headscarf, Abudiab said, and it shouldn’t have to take that long.

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