Fr Patrick with Waseem Ahmad and Mobinah Ahmad at their wedding reception. Photo: Rev Dr Patrick McInerney
I have been working in interfaith in general and Christian-Muslim relations in particular in Sydney for more than 20 years. When I was starting out, a senior Columban said to me, “Just show up!” Taking his advice seriously, I have attended as many Muslim and interfaith events, talks, seminars, conferences, iftar dinners, Friday prayers, Eid prayers, and community celebrations as I could. Often, I am the only Christian among hundreds of Muslims. It is a ministry of presence, a Catholic showing interest in and attending significant events in the lives of believers from other religions, participating to the extent possible, representing the Church, and witnessing God’s all-inclusive love.
As a result of my constant ‘roaming’—I am, after all, a ‘Roman’ Catholic!—Muslims now expect to see me at their events. One Muslim elder whom I greet and who greets me every year at Eid prayers at the mosque once said it wasn’t Eid without me!
Wherever I go, I am always welcomed and shown respect and hospitality. On one occasion I attended Friday prayers and the President of the Mosque Committee introduced me to the congregation as “a friend of the Muslims”, which was a touching tribute.
From attending so many events so often, I have come to know many Muslims, and to be known by them, some for many years, some only more recently. One Muslim family with whom I have a long association crossing three generations considers me a member of their extended family.
On 24 September 2022, the Islamic Council of NSW hosted an Open Day at Arncliffe Mosque. They invited people to visit the mosque, to hear a talk about Islam, the mosque, its purpose and features, and to enjoy a meal. It is a wonderful way to break down ignorance, prejudices, and stereotypes and create community harmony. Such initiatives are terrific, so as a gesture of support, and heeding the advice I had been given long ago, “Just show up!”, I decided to attend. Kim Chong and her family also attended. I had never been to that mosque before, so I was surprised to discover that I knew half a dozen Muslims there by name and they knew me. No longer strangers. It was a meeting of friends. Such familiarity is the fruit of the ministry of ‘just showing up’, time after time after time, at whatever events one can attend.
In the last couple of years, I have attended the funerals of three Muslim elders whom I had come to know during my time in Sydney and with whom I enjoyed a mutual friendship. One was the President who introduced me to the mosque congregation, the other two were the patriarch and matriarch of the Muslim family I mentioned above. I was the only Christian in the mosque for the funeral prayers and at the graveside for the burial.
I have also attended a few Muslim wedding receptions, either the bride or groom being a Muslim whom I had come to know or the child of a Muslim I had come to know. All were wonderful family and community celebrations, as all weddings are, with a sprinkling of guests from other faiths representing the wider society.
Reflecting on being part of these pivotal life moments, of participating in Muslim family weddings and funerals, it struck me that interfaith is more than the conferences, talks, seminars, and workshops, as important as these educational formalities are. The bottom line is the relationships we build, the friendships we share, and entering the joys and sorrows of other peoples' lives.
Would that more of us would risk moving out of the comfort zones of our own religious tribes and reaching out to believers from other religions. Would that more of us from different religions would become present to each other. Would that more of us would attend others’ events and come to know and to be known by them. Would that more of us would extend the hand of friendship and create a more fraternal/sororal world. Would that more of us would enter “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” (Gaudium et Spes, #1) of believers from other religions and create bonds of mutual friendship that bring peace and joy to our multicultural, multireligious society! It doesn’t take much. Just show up!
Rev Dr Patrick McInerney, Director, Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations.
- Read more from the current Columban Interfaith eBulletin