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For interfaith relations in Michigan, a lesson from Sierra Leone

Mountain road in Sierra Leone
Mountain road in Sierra Leone

The Next Idea

Growing up in Chicago during the 1950s was a remarkably innocent experience for me. We lived in a bubble of post-WWII gratitude, and religious diversity meant only Christianity and Judaism. Tales like “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin and the Magic Carpet” were the closest I came to even hearing about Islam, which was called Mohammedanism then.

Years later in college, I took a course on comparative religions. It was still called Mohammedanism in our textbook, which also included sections on Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. These were called “the four major world religions.” I passed the course and didn’t really think much about Islam until 1980. 

Mountain road in Sierra Leone
Credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobthemagicdragon/7003917056
Mountain road in Sierra Leone

This was the year our missionary family went to live and work in the small West African country of Sierra Leone. Our Christian denomination and mission agency had decided to attempt an integrated, word-deed outreach in one the poorest areas of the world at that time. Veteran development “experts” and mission leaders had done research on the land and its people and had received permission to send a team. Our strategy called for us to work alongside local villagers in agriculture, community development, primary health care, literacy and evangelism. A North American experienced in each discipline was recruited. I was the evangelist.

We moved into a home in a small village in the mountains of Northern Sierra Leone. There was another missionary family there who had arrived a month before us. Together we formed a nine-person minority in a village of 700 Muslims – we were Christian, American, white folks. Our children became the bridge to the community. Like all kids, they wanted friends, and all the children in town were Muslim. 

This was never a barrier. Through them we met their parents, sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts and other villagers who, over the years, became dear to our family.

We were welcomed into the community with amazing generosity, genuine concern, and excitement. Our neighbors delighted in visiting us and we gradually got used to having virtually no privacy.  We learned language, culture, customs and the local Muslim practices. Our home became a “coffee shop” for our children’s friends and a resting place for the old hunters who mentored our son and gradually told their secrets as he became one of them. I never knew who was going to be sleeping in the chair in our front room. We lived there for 15 years until a civil war destroyed half of the village houses, including our own.

Our story is long, beautiful, tragic, joyful and sometimes sad. It is a preface to developing Muslim-Christian relationships in Michigan.

The church we attend in Grand Rapids is a community of people with a strong commitment to following the teaching of Jesus in our neighborhood. 

This neighborhood includes two newly built mosques, so it seemed wise to get to know the people who attended them. My background in Sierra Leone made this a natural fit for me. I was asked by the justice wing of our denomination to contact the imams in these mosques.

One mosque primarily serves Bosnians, and the other serves the Middle Eastern and African community. The welcome I received was warm and wonderful. Within a few weeks the imam and I had arranged a dinner to be hosted by the Bosnians for 25 local pastors and church leaders. Neither of us wanted heavy theological discussion. Arrangements were simple – a tour of the mosque, good conversations and a delicious dinner followed by a sweet Bosnian dessert.

More events followed. Our church invited our new Muslim neighbors to join us in an afternoon soccer match on a field nearby. Nobody kept score. Another sharing event involved 45 members of our church visiting the mosque for a presentation and meal. The next event will be a short worship service at our church and an explanation of our basic Christian beliefs.  This will be followed by a picnic, weather permitting. 

We are learning from each other; we share a strong belief in the sovereignty of God; we both want to be living witness of what we believe; we both believe in peace. 

So what’s the Next Idea?

So, how does this relate to Michigan? What is the “Next Idea” on ethno-religious diversity that can be applied to the workplace?

First, we must learn and accept a few historical facts about our state. Michigan has one of the largest Middle Eastern and Arab populations in the U.S., estimated around 300,000 people. Their religious diversity is great, encompassing three Muslim denominations and nine Christian ones. They are here to stay.

Secondly, we should note that 30 years ago, most Americans knew very little about Islam or Muslims. Today virtually everyone has an opinion, many of which are founded on fear regularly re-enforced by remembering the horrors of 9/11, Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon and San Bernardino, as well as weeks of “round the clock” media coverage of each event. Overseas attacks like the recent one in Brussels add to the fear.

Twenty-four individual Muslims were responsible for all the acts in the U. S. Only four of them were American citizens. There are an estimated 3 million Muslim citizens in the U.S. as of 2016. It takes a monumental jump in human reason to blame all Muslims for these acts of terrorism.

So what we really have is this: There will be a growing number of seriously religious folks in the work force at all levels. In every city in Michigan, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews will be neighbors, will work together and will socialize. The workplace is changing here and in many parts of the USA.  This change includes observance of religious holidays for all faiths, time off to meet religious obligations, space for spiritual mediation, recognition of and respect for differing belief systems. Business leaders are beginning to realize that it is to their great advantage to make this space for religion.

A happy workforce is a more productive work force. Adapting work space to religious faith allows for more open-minded discussions by a much more inclusive and diverse group. New ideas come out of these discussions. We learn about each other with each other. “Us and them” thinking does not help productivity, build good relationships, or make workers eager to get up each morning and head for the job.

What our church and neighboring mosques are doing in Grand Rapids is just one simple model which can be adapted in a hundred ways throughout Michigan’s increasingly multi-cultural communities, workplaces, and schools. 

We can no longer live in bubbles of self-congratulating, mono-cultural, white “Christian” enclaves. To do so would move Michigan toward irrelevance, something that benefits no one.

Paul Kortenhoven is a retired missionary from the Christian Reform Church. Paul Kortenhoven discusses what making room for religion in the workplace could mean for Michigan on "Stateside"

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Paul Kortenhoven