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)

A sacrificial feast

Written  November 2010.

Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha, the holiest holiday in the Islamic calendar. It is similar to Christians’ Easter celebrations, in that it is the most important holiday of the year, yet the worldwide festivities and preparations are less extensive than those during the month of Ramadan (which is similar to Christmastime in terms of the scope of celebration.) However, in Mecca, where over two million Muslims have traveled on pilgrimage, or hajj, the celebrations and rituals could not be grander, as I expect is also true in Jerusalem during Easter.

Muslims circle the Holy Kaba in Mecca
Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem during Easter

Eid al-Adha celebrates the sacrifice Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to make when God asked him to slaughter his son (Ismaeel/Ishmael).  The story is quite similar to the Christian one, but with notable changes that speak to the differences between the two faiths.  In the Bible, the story focuses solely on Abraham, and his willingness to give up his son in order to serve God.  We never hear from Isaac, who, at least in my mind, is likely scared and confused.  In the Islamic story, the focus too is on Ibrahim, but we also hear from Ismaeel, who is about to be killed.  Understanding what his father is about to do, Ishmael welcomes the action, telling his father to kill him if that is God’s will.  Luckily, in the end, both boys survive thanks to a ram caught in the bushes sent by God, who is pleased by his followers’ faithfulness.

Depiction of Christian story

When I first heard the Islamic version of the story, I was struck by the emphasis on Ismaeel and his willingness to submit to the will of God.  His faithful trust in God’s plan is emblematic of the attitude that I’ve witnessed in so many of my Muslim friends and teachers.  So often I hear the phrase, “In ‘sha Allah” muttered by my friends in the place where Christians might say, “hopefully.”  The Arabic phrase translates to “God willing,” and is used when discussing anything that may happen in the future.  My friends work hard to detach themselves from their own wishes and instead try to accept whatever God places in their way.  This core quality is even expressed in the name “Islam,” which means “submission to God,” and “Muslim,” literally means “the one who submits.”

A few weeks ago, I participated in the Muslim Students Association annual Fast-a-thon, an event in which Georgetown students fasted in solidarity with their Muslim friends and classmates in order to raise money and awareness for a cause.  We fasted from sunrise to sunset, without food or water, as if it were the month of Ramadan (which took place earlier in the year.)  At the iftaar meal at the end of the day, I was fortunate enough to give a reflection on fasting and sacrifice in Islam.  The following is what shared:

Hi, my name is Jordan Denari.  I’m a member of the Muslim Students Association; I live in the Muslim Interest Living Community on campus; and I’m a Catholic.  A lot of people have asked me if I’m converting to Islam, which is not surprising given my involvement.  But no, I’m not converting.

However, learning about Islam here on campus has been crucial to my religious growth and has in many ways brought me back to my Catholicism.  Through my attendance at and participation in MSA events, I’ve seen the beauty in Islam, which helped me to find the beauty in my own faith, which I had been unable to see for a long time.

Last year’s Fast-a-thon is really where all of that learning began.  Two of the biggest things I noticed about fasting in Islam—as I hope you’ve also noticed—are the emphases on sacrifice and community.  Fasting from food, drink, and negative thoughts all day for a month is clearly a sacrifice, especially when compared to the less intense forms of fasting I’m familiar with in Catholicism.  To my surprise, I quickly realized that Muslims were excited to fast, not only because their sacrifice was giving glory to God, but also because of the sense of community at the iftaar dinners, where Muslims gather together every night to celebrate their daily sacrifices.

I was struck by the power of these themes, and wondered why I wasn’t seeing them in my own faith.  That encouraged me to take a closer look at Catholicism and find those themes—sacrifice and community—that are so prevalent in Islam.  Through a lot of exploration last year, I found those things, but it was only while reflecting for this talk that I was able to see how similarly these themes intersect in Catholicism as they do in Islam.

That intersection is found in the Eucharist, the communion meal that occurs during Mass, in which we commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice.  As Catholics, we too are called to sacrifice as Jesus did by serving the marginalized in our communities in order to bring God’s goodness into the world.  Every week, when we gather as a community for the Eucharist, we are celebrating the sacrifices we live out every day in our own way.  We may not be sacrificing food or water, but we are sacrificing our own time, our own goals, to follow the will of God.  In that way, the Eucharist is very much like the iftaar meal we are sharing in tonight.  At both meals we join in community to celebrate the sacrifices we make for God.

Finding this intersection point in the Eucharist makes the communion ritual that much more meaningful for me.

Last year’s Fast-a-thon was for me the unconscious beginning of a process of religious learning here at Georgetown.  I hope all of you make this meal a conscious start to your own growth.  I encourage you, whether you adhere to a specific faith or not, whether you believe in God or not, to take advantage of the opportunities you have here to learn from people of other faiths.  It not only fosters inter-religious and cultural understanding, but it also has the potential to increase your understanding of yourself and God.

I want to thank the Muslim community on campus for its support and for bringing us here tonight.  And especially, for helping me become a better Catholic.”

While Muslims today are slaughtering animals in remembrance of Abraham and Ishmael’s sacrifice, I am reminded of the Church’s own ritual slaughtering—the Eucharist—in which Jesus is offered up as a sacrificial animal, so that we, like Isaac and Ishmael, can be spared.  Unlike my Muslim brothers and sisters, I don’t have to wait another year to engage in my faith’s sacrificial ritual.  Fortunately, I just have to wait until Sunday.

Want to read and hear the Qur’anic passage from which the Ibrahim and Ishmael story comes? Qur’an, Chapter 37 (As-Saffaat), Verse 103

Want to learn more about Eid al-Adha and see pictures from the Hajj in Mecca?

 

 

Click here to see photos from the Washington Post.

 

 

Summary of the holy day

Al-Jazeera Special Report: Hajj 2010

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Also, today is the 21st anniversary of the murder of 6 Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador.  This weekend at the Teach-In we celebrated their lives and their sacrifice.

Modern day prophets

The theme of this year’s Ignatian Family Teach-In is “Prophetic lives: Caminando juntos (Walking together).”

Romero's assassination

This idea is taken from the words of Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered while saying Mass in 1980.  During the brutal civil war, he advocated for the protection of the poor in his country, but was left unaided by the Church and foreign governments.

“Cada uno de ustedes tiene que ser un profeta./ Each one of you has to be a prophet.” –Oscar Romero

Again, the delegation of Georgetown students was asked to contemplate this quote and the conference theme in anticipation for the IFTJ.  Is God calling us to be prophets?  And what does that role entail?

I look to Isaiah, Jesus, and Muhammad for guidance in answering these questions.*

All three men were misunderstood in their own era, their words ignored or marked as radical or blasphemous.  Isaiah urged the Israelites to turn back to God, but they continued in their sinful ways.

Isaiah as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

They were outsiders whose positions on issues of God and faith were ahead of their time.  Muhammad called for greater increased women’s rights in a world dominated by men, and in polytheistic Arabia he pushed the notion of a single God.

Muhammad, written in Arabic calligraphy. In Islam, religious figures are not depicted in art.

They challenged the status quo, made a community among the ostracized of society, and criticized unjust social structures and practices—always at their own peril and sacrifice.  Jesus broke social norms and dined with sinners, ultimately losing his life.

Jesus and Veronica

Though their messages were shunned during their own time, looking back, we realize that God was speaking through them, that their messages—which God wanted us desperately to hear—were taking root.  Today, billions of people of many faiths revere these men, seeing them as perfect or near perfect examples of a servant of God.  Isaiah, Jesus, and Muhammad may have had a difficult time seeing the fruits of the religious and social progress they initiated, but their work was crucial to beginning the process of change.

So can we too be prophets?

Admittedly, we are not as holy as Christ or the founder of Islam, but despite this we are called to fill a similar role.  When we see injustice in our communities, we must be the mouthpiece for God, challenging the social, religious, or political status quo.  We may be misunderstood, ignored, or even persecuted by those in our society who are afraid of change, but we know that we have the support of God, who is working through us.

Being a messenger of God requires a lot of humility, and a willingness to learn and question.  We cannot assume that we as humans can find the solutions to problems on our own.  Rather, we must listen to God and discern his message, using our talents to share that message with the community that needs to hear it.  We are only the vessel through which God works; in order to be filled, we must empty ourselves. (I take this idea from the prayer, “A Hallowed Space to Be Filled” by William Breault, S.J.)

I see my work as a writer, journalist, and advocate as prophetic work. I believe God has charged me to promote a message of understanding between religious groups, particularly Muslims and Christians, during a time when demonization of “others” is deemed acceptable and goes unchallenged by many.  I realize that my positions regarding religion are considered radical by many in my community, and that many are unwilling to listen.  Yet I know that my work is important and necessary. “God has created me to do Him some divine service.  I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next,” as Cardinal Newman says in his famous meditation.  I am confident that though I cannot see fully the effects of my labor—and never will—God has called me on this path of prophethood.

During times when I’ve doubted what impact I can make, Oscar Romero’s famous prayer has encouraged me to continue, and reminded me of the divine significance of my small contributions.

The Prayer of Oscar Romero

 

 

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.  The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

 

Questions for reflection: Do you see yourself as a prophet?  What message has God given you to convey?

Additionally, you may be interested in a recent article by Jesuit James Martin about how we can follow the example of the saints.

*My Biblical history is lacking so if I made any mistake in recounting the lives of the three prophets please let me know.