My talk at the Ignatian Family Teach-In

Last weekend, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to deliver the following speech at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice to an audience of over 1,000.

Using my own experiences with Muslim-Christian dialogue and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I argued that we as Catholics are called to engage in interreligious dialogue.

Click here, or on the image below to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims,” or read the full text of the speech below the photo.

Click here to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims” November 16, 2012, IFTJ

Full text of the speech:

Good evening.

[My name is Jordan Denari, I’m a senior at Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C. (applause) and a proud alumnus of Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis (applause).  Forgive me, I’m getting over a cough and lost my voice earlier this week, so bear with me.]

I’d like to begin first by saying “Assalaamu ‘alaykum,” which, in Arabic, means “peace be with you.”  It seems like an appropriate way to begin today, given that it’s a phrase that Muslims use to greet one another, and it’s something that Jesus encouraged his followers to say to each other as well.

During my freshman year at Georgetown University, I was asked the following question multiple times: “Are you converting to Islam?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked that question now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association, lived in the Muslim living-learning community, worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, and can often be spotted participating in Muslim Friday prayers with my hair wrapped up in a scarf.

In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and I feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before.

And that’s not spite of my engagement with the Muslim community, but because of it. Rather than pulling me away from my Catholic faith, interreligious dialogue with Muslims has deepened my faith, enriched it. Dialogue — which for me is about lived engagement with those different from myself — helped me fall back in love with the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.

At the beginning of college, while struggling with my Catholic identity and wondering if another religion like Islam might provide me with the connection to God that I was missing, I formed a close friendship with a Muslim girl in my dorm, Wardah. She taught me more about Islam than books ever could, because she simply lived her religion. When we roomed together as sophomores, she woke up early in the morning to pray and often stopped in the middle of homework assignments to pull out her prayer rug. Lacking commitment in my relationship with God, I wanted that kind of consistency in my own prayer life.

Wardah brought me to Muslim students’ events, like an iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. I was struck by the sense of community and solidarity I saw among my new Muslim friends, and realized how much I craved that, too.

Finding these emphases on prayer and community in Islam reminded me that they also existed in my own Church, and I wanted to find them again. I signed up for a Catholic retreat with the intent of improving my daily prayer habits, and I joined a small Catholic bible study that provided me with a community with whom I could reflect on scripture. My relationship with God began improving, and my appreciation for my Catholic tradition increased.

My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my exposure to Islam and my immersion into the Muslim community. But this process occurred differently than many might expect. People may assume that, after being exposed to Islam’s beliefs and practices and not liking them, I ran for the hills—the familiarity of Catholicism.

Instead, Islam, a faith not my own, became the medium through which I came to love the faith of my childhood. Islam provided me with a critical reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism.

I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith —for making me a better Catholic. I think immersion into any other religious tradition would have served me in the same way.

As I began to reflect upon my own faith journey and the way in which Islam brought me back to Catholicism, I wondered what the Church would say about my engagement with the Muslim community and the interreligious dialogue that was so crucial to my experience.

A class on the post-Vatican II Church began to answer my questions, and I was thrilled to discover that the Church’s understanding of the importance of dialogue mirrored my own.

For the Church, interreligious dialogue is essential, and its purpose is vast: fostering understanding and learning between different religious groups; establishing social peace and cooperation; and strengthening the spirituality of all those involved.

The Church’s dedication to dialogue officially began with Nostra Aetate, a revolutionary Vatican II document that describes the Church’s new relationship to non-Christian religions.  In only five short paragraphs, it reshaped the way the Church approaches people of other faiths.

It reads: the Church “urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.  Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”

The Church asserts that I can still remain true to my Catholic identity—that I am actually living out my Catholicism—while supporting and encouraging my Muslim friends’ way of life.

Pope John Paul II, who took strides to implement the ideals called for in Nostra Aetate, wrote in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis that participation in dialogue “does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality…” Rather, he said, “the strong beliefs and the moral values of the followers of other religions can and should challenge Christians to respond more fully and generously to the demands of their own Christian faith.”

This has been my experience precisely. And that’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are Muslims my good friends, but their devotion to their religion constantly motivates me to re-examine the way I live out my Catholicism.

And, it’s why I’ve led efforts at Georgetown to provide religiously-diverse students with opportunities to dialogue with one another. Thanks to our small-group dialogue program, students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and in seeing how other believers practice their faith, they reflect on their own tradition in a new light.

The most powerful—and likely surprising—line in Nostra Aetate is one that again speaks directly to my own experiences.

It reads: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. …[Their teachings] often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”

I feel “rays of truth”—or God’s presence—when I participate in Muslim prayer and squish shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the congregation.  I see the rays of truth when I watch the way my Muslim friends interact with one another in love.

And I hear the rays of truth in the azan, the Islamic call to prayer.  When I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan, I was constantly drawn into a state of prayer upon hearing the azan five times a day.  It was God calling me to dhikr, remembrance of God and the way he works in my life.

Nostra Aetate helped me realize that living a life of dialogue and interreligious engagement with Muslims was an inherently Catholic vocation, and it continues to challenge me today to live out that call in deeper ways:

The Church encourages all to “work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve, as well as to promote, together, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom, for the benefit of all mankind.”

It’s particularly important for me to stand in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters today, in light of the prejudices that Muslims face in the post-9/11 world.

Last month, anti-Muslim hate propaganda lined the walls of the D.C. metro, and a friend’s mosque was targeted in arson. And those are only two of myriad hate-filled and ignorance-driven acts that Muslims have had to cope with over the last few years.  When I worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, I’d read daily local news reports about hate crimes against Muslims, but never were they reported about on a national scale, despite the fact that between 2009 and 2010, hate crimes against Muslims in America rose by 50%.  As a Catholic, I can’t forget that our minority religious community too faced prejudice and scapegoating during an earlier time in American history.  Like Muslims, we Catholics were marginalized because we were “foreign” and “threatening to American law and way of life.”

Today, the same accusations—and worse—are leveled against Muslims. Because many Americans don’t know Muslims—62% claim to have never met a Muslim—the media’s negative portrayal allows the American public—and many Christians—to push Muslims to the margins.

Unfortunately, I saw this marginalization occurring in my own Catholic community back home in Indianapolis.  One afternoon during my junior year of high school, I opened my e-mail inbox to find a hateful, Islamophobic chain message, forwarded from a family friend.  The email contained inflammatory epithets about Muslims, who, according to the email, expressed tacit approval for terrorism and violence committed by a few radicals.  I was angry and sad that a family friend, someone from my own Catholic community, could espouse and promote this hateful sentiment—that she would lump terrorists together with people like my friend, Nadir, a Muslim who went to my high school, Brebeuf Jesuit, and now goes to Georgetown with me. He is an exceptional individual who exudes kindness and has committed his life to helping others.  I wondered how my family friend could put him in the same category as those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

It was immediately apparent to me that my family friend was not a hateful woman; it was her ignorance that resulted in her prejudicial comments. Those in my Catholic community who had circulated this email did so because of their lack of understanding of Muslims.

I hope my own story, and the call of Nostra Aetate, can help remind Christians how much we need our Muslim neighbors—how much we can learn about God and each other by engaging with them.  We must be like the Samaritan, pulling up the stranger.  We must bring Muslims out of the margins, making clear that they too are our neighbors.

Every night, I go to Mass in the chapel of the North American Jesuit Martyrs at Georgetown.  It’s a habit that I never would have anticipated myself undertaking four years ago, when I came to college shaky about my Catholic identity.  During the Eucharist, I often think about the fact that I wouldn’t be at nightly Mass were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics participate in their 10pm Mass, the Muslim students complete their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah, or prayer room, next door.  When I come to Mass discouraged about the state of Muslim-Christian relations—when it seems that violence and bigotry will win out—I’m often strengthened by the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every night: Allahu akbar—God is greater.

(End of speech)