The voice of a young Middle Eastern man echoed through the room as he sounded the call to prayer amidst a crackling microphone; the time to break the Ramadan fast had arrived. Water and fresh dates are offered to the primarily non-Muslim crowd and the Iftar dinner is served.
While the Muslim hosts are busying themselves setting the buffet tables for the ensuing feast, I find myself noticing that this Iftar dinner is markedly different. Instead of being in the minority surrounded by men in typical Muslim attire, the room is full of men, women and children from a variety of faith backgrounds. My search for a table full of Muslims is a success after climbing over chairs to the far corner of the room. After introductions and a warm welcome I ask the men, “Who are all the people in this room?” Their answer is beautiful; they simply say, “These are friends.”
Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee have been no stranger to the media over the past year. Public outcry emerged from this small southern town beginning with the haunting words, “NOT WELCOME” painted by vandals across the Islamic Center’s future site sign. After a new sign was donated, it was quickly broken in half with an axe under the cover of night. Strong dissenting voices made it very clear that the growing Muslim population was being viewed with suspicion and bigotry.
Essam Fathy, the chairman of the board of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro recounted the drama of the previous year with grace and gentleness to the gathering of friends celebrating the final night of Ramadan. He said with a big smile, “We are not new here, some of us have lived in Murfreesboro for 30 years. All of our children were born here. This is the only home we have. We are Americans too.”
More than one hundred of these local friends breaking bread together with their Muslim neighbors was a testimony to me of what the media had not been reporting to the public. The quiet support and friendship through phone calls and visits behind closed doors were suddenly all gathered in one room. Their individual encouragement to neighbors and coworkers over the past year was now a corporate voice saying, “We are Murfreesboro. We love you and we support you.”
The Muslim community initiated this dinner on their holiday to not only share their wonderful culture and hospitality, but also to say, “Thank you” to those that had come alongside them during their public scrutiny. There were pastors, priests, and those from their respective congregations, not to mention business leaders and neighbors all a part of the celebration. These were the people of Murfreesboro who chose to see their Muslim neighbors as friends, not enemies. The food was incredibly good, but the experience of diverse and loving community was even richer and more satisfying.
Participation in this Iftar dinner was the culmination of a nationwide effort to partner Muslims and Christians together to “Share Ramadan.” Trac5, a not-for-profit organization focusing on peace building and reconciliation between the two faiths, is equipped with local Ambassadors throughout the U.S. who organized getting the two groups together for Ramadan meals. The Trac5 Ambassadors facilitated 17 Sharing Ramadan events from Clifton, NJ to Atlanta, GA to Houston, TX and Spokane, WA. The Christian participants in these Iftar dinners experienced the rich heritage of their Muslim neighbors over food and fellowship. They walked away with a new cultural experience, but also with newfound friendships.
Trac5 is following up on the Sharing Ramadan experiences with local grassroots community outreach projects called “Compassion in Action.” Last year in Atlanta a Compassion in Action project gathered more than 120 Muslims and Christians together to pack a month’s worth of fresh food into boxes that were then distributed to 60 refugee families in Clarkston, Georgia. Throughout this fall Trac5 hopes to organize dozens of similar local outreach events that intentionally partner Muslims and Christians together to serve their community.
Reconciliation in Murfreesboro is a start, but there are countless communities across America that need to experience a little reconciliation of their own. Sharing a meal together is a great way to make that happen.
Mark Casey is the Director of Education and Programs for Trac5 and is based out of Nashville, Tennessee. He is a speaker and educator in the U.S. and internationally.