I am a proud Christian. I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and as an adult worshipped at AME Zion and Baptist churches where the congregations were 100% black.
For the past decade I have worshipped at a Unity Church outside of Washington, DC where the congregation is multi-cultural and the doctrine is more spiritual than religious. The Unity Worldwide Ministries website says: We honor all paths to God as we provide a philosophy that is spiritual, not religious; and love-based, not fear-based.
We strive to help individuals have a stronger connection to God every day by helping them feel empowered, accepted, loved, inspired and connected. This openness drew me to Unity as the message was one of acceptance of all religions and the belief that there is a universal God that may be expressed in different ways, may be called by different names but with the same message, that of love, to peace, abundance and infinite potential for the possibility of realizing everything that we want. Unity teaches that there is something more powerful within us than that which we can see, feel or touch in the three-dimensional world. As I have evolved in my understanding of what religion means to me, Unity principles seem to support my worldview that the foundation of all the major religions of the world is the belief in a higher, invisible power that is in control and can lead us to a world where love not fear and joy not pain persist.
I continue to evolve in my understanding. It is a journey. As a child I thought that my religion was the only religion and as I became a young adult I believed that my religion was the only "right" religion. I was fearful of other faith expressions. For example, during my childhood I accompanied my mother several times to Catholic funeral services. The rituals were so different from what I was used to. I did not understand the language, the dress of the priest and nuns and even the parishioners. These early experiences left me afraid of Catholics. It was that "scary" religion and then my first day freshman year in college I met the man who I would eventually marry and he told me that he was Catholic. I had never met a black Catholic before and all I could think of was my early experiences with Catholicism that frightened me.
When I went home with my future husband for the first time to meet his family (this was early 70's) I learned that his sister was converting from Catholicism to Islam. I certainly knew nothing about this religion and my early learnings were just that they did not eat pork, the men always wore bow ties, the women always covered their head and they prayed several times throughout the day. If I thought Catholicism was scary, Islam was really out of my comfort zone.
Over the years I avoided conversation about Islam with my Muslim sister-in-law and her children who were being raised Muslim. I did not want to offend them and I believed that our ideologies were just so different that we had nothing in common. However, I did realize that they were different in the most amazing and beautiful ways. My sister-in law was and is the kindest person I know. I have never heard her speak an unkind word about anybody. She is modest, humble and dedicated to her family and her religion in disciplined yet loving ways. Her children embody their mother's spirit. One niece, Jamillah Karim, after graduating with honors from Duke with a degree in engineering, decided to pursue a PhD in Islamic Studies and is now one of the foremost authorities on Islam in the country. Jamillah always exudes love, patience and compassion and when I am in her presence I always feel an aura of peace. I have really envied my Muslim family because they made the Christian principles that I tried to abide by come alive in ways that I did not and could not.
I also learned from my Muslim family that there are a number of commonalities with Christianity. My epiphany happened one day in the mid-eighties. My sister-in-law and I were talking and she mentioned something about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I was shocked as I thought that these were strictly biblical figures. How could it be that they were also a part of the Muslim religion? This commonality was the ice breaker, the door opener if you will, for us to begin to have meaningful dialogue across religious differences. I am certainly not an expert on Islam but I am not afraid now to ask questions to better understand the tenets of this religion.
The main point here is that our lack of understanding of each other's religions keeps us polarized and fearful. Once I met someone who was Catholic (and actually married him!) and learned more about the commonalities with Protestants, I was no longer fearful of that religion. Learning more about Muslims through the interactions with my family, eliminated the fear that I initially had about Islam. I believe that in order to have meaningful dialogue across religions, we must first find that which we have in common. We cannot effectively explore those similarities from a place of fear and ignorance. This does not mean that we have to agree with every practice of other religions but that we can accept that there are a number of ways to express our faith. Without understanding, there can be no acceptance. The only way we can understand is to be curious without judgment and learn more.
Islam is not the enemy. Ignorance is!
Read the companion post by Jamillah Karim, Mary-Frances Winters niece here.