British Methodists, Muslims, seek understanding
April 17, 2006
|A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera
Faruk Ali (left) speaks with the Rev. Doug Smith after a mission
presentation on Islam at Hillside Methodist Church in Bolton.
By Kathleen LaCamera*
BOLTON, England (UMNS) — The Rev. Doug Smith is grateful for the
time his Muslim neighbors and colleagues devoted to him when he worked
as an attorney for a Texas-based oil company.
"I spent hours chatting to them about Islam and Christianity and
learned to appreciate the Islamic faith," recalls Smith, who now leads
four Methodist churches near Bolton in northwest England.
In late March, Smith invited Moulana Faruk Ali to speak about Islam
at a districtwide Methodist mission event. He and Ali both serve as
chaplains at the Bolton Royal Infirmary, where Smith says Ali has been
"waging peace" by making people feel better for the past 17 years.
He hopes that by inviting Ali to talk about his experience as a Muslim, people
will get to know there are many sides of Islam.
"We're fighting stereotypes," Smith explains. "I want to show people a
more common face of Islam, different from the one that ends up being
reported on in the papers."
An hour's drive east of Bolton, in the northern town of Leeds, the
Rev. Neil Bishop serves as pastor to Methodist churches in an area
called Leeds 11 (a reference to the area's postal code). Three of the
four men responsible for the bombings in London last summer came from
the Muslim community in this area. Fifty-five people died in the
"I think the overwhelming feeling was a sense of deep disappointment
that the conspiracy was hatched (here) and that the reputation of the
area has been dragged through the mud. People feel that if we allow what
happened to divide us ... the bombers will have won a small victory,"
Bishop and his colleagues from across the religious community in
Leeds have been promoting interfaith dialogue and activities for years.
In recent months, a community café has opened catering to a mix of
people from many cultural backgrounds. All the food served in the café
is "hallal," which means it has been ritually prepared according to
Long-established interfaith groups for mothers and their children consistently
have been popular. Bishop points out that no matter what their cultural background,
mothers share similar challenges when it comes to raising children: getting
them to bed, learning to potty train them and looking after them properly.
"People meeting together on common ground, taking part in activities,
discover common interests and each other's culture," he says.
|Web-only photo courtesy of Nicolson Square Methodist Church
At Nicolson Square Methodist Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, participants in an interfaith meeting share food and fellowship.
In the nearby city of Bradford, the Rev. Geoff Reid, a Methodist
pastor, has been working with the interfaith team of the Touchstone
Centre for 11 and a half years. Last summer, the Christian-Muslim
women's group based at Touchstone organized a traditional English "day
out" to the seaside. Word came back that Muslim women and children on
the trip were surprised to find they were expected to sit on the sand
and eat their lunch.
After one of the trip organizers explained "this is what we do (in
England)," the group received instructions in sand-pie making and donkey
riding, a traditional British seaside activity. A Touchstone newsletter
summary of the trip reports that "a grand time was had by all."
"Interfaith work demands a lot of patience and commitment. Eventually
you achieve a breakthrough, but not in a hurry," Reid tells United
Methodist News Service.
Bradford has been an area where the extreme far-right British
National Party, known for its hard-line policies on immigration, has
been active for years. Reid believes Touchstone's ministry is "about
overcoming fear." Not long after the London bombings, he cautioned the
Touchstone community never to underestimate the fear those events
generated in Bradford's Muslim communities.
The Rev. Jill Marsh believes part of the job of being Christian, especially
in the current political climate, is to encourage Muslims to speak out about
Marsh leads two Methodist churches in Leicester, one of the most ethnically
diverse cities in Britain. She also is involved in the newly opened St. Philips
Centre, a focus for multi-faith action in Leicester.
Marsh recalls a conversation with a Muslim friend in which he
confessed to her that, "I'm sick to death of having to say I'm not
fanatical. I am extreme in my passion for God, for my family and for my
belief that prayer matters."
|A UMNS photo courtesy of Leeds Methodist Circuit
in front of the Stafford Street Mosque in Beeston, England, members of
local churches, including Methodists, join in a vigil in support of
She responded by telling him not to back off from what he believes,
but she admits she understands the difficulty of "being yourself" in a
culture where the words "Muslim" and "extremist" are often spoken
together with negative implications.
In the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, Marsh says she knows people who had
their houses searched by police in the middle of the night.
"These are people who have never had things said against them. It's
the jobs of Christians to show concern and support for those people. The
danger is the evil by a few can escalate into more resentment for
Marsh, who is a member of the British Methodist Church's national
interfaith relations advisory committee, admits that in the current
climate, few are immune from racial stereotyping. She recalls an
incident when she was walking her dog in a local park and came upon a
group of boys.
"Often, I'm the only white person in the park, and I saw a group of
older teens packing up after playing a ball game. I saw two people, one
spread-eagle on the ground and the other one bent over the first. I got
really stressed and nervous coming up on this scene.
"Then I realized it wasn't two people, but that the boy had laid out
his jacket on the ground as a prayer mat and was praying. He finished
his prayer, got up, rolled up his jacket and ran off to join the other
boys. There I was tense, making assumptions, when someone was praying,"
|A UMNS photo courtesy of Leeds Methodist Circuit
and their children gather at the Building Block Centre, an interfaith
facility in Leeds, for an event with Christian and Muslim congregations.
Nicolson Square Methodist Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, has found
itself the object of racial abuse because of its good relations with the
Muslim community. The church is right next door to the city's main
Central Mosque and shares a host of activities and initiatives with its
Muslim neighbors. In recent months, racist graffiti was sprayed on the
church's doors and abusive pamphlets were put through the letterbox. The
perpetrators have never been caught.
"This was obviously done by white racists," says the Rev. Frank
Whaling, church member and Professor Emeritus of the Study of World
Religions at Edinburgh University. "It's obvious that these people don't
like faiths coming together. ... As far as we're concerned, it's not
nice, but if it serves to bring people together, that's good."
In July, the mosque and the Methodist church, along with support from
other Edinburgh faith groups, will send an interfaith Habitat for
Humanity team for two weeks to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet
Republic. Whaling, who also is the president of the Interfaith
Association in Edinburgh, says the city is a "key place for interfaith
At the mission event in Bolton, Faruk Ali concluded his presentation
on Islam by encouraging the 100-plus audience gathered at the Hillside
Methodist Church to ask him questions. One person asked about the real
meaning of "jihad," another about Islam's attitude to interfaith
marriage, and still another about how Muslims view Jesus.
The Rev. Ann Cash, who brought several parishioners with her to the
presentation from a nearby Methodist chapel, said she was glad to hear
Ali say suicide bombings are against Islamic teaching. She is impressed
with Ali's openness and believes such dialogue is a good way to promote
understanding and common ground with people of other faiths.
Judy Merry, a broadcaster and member at Hillside church, believes
people in the West are desperately trying to understand Islam. "We
appreciate hearing about ordinary Muslim people's basic beliefs."
Ali himself says he was "impressed with the audience," although he
had been "a bit worried and nervous" about fulfilling the group's
expectations. A hearty round of applause following his talk helped
dispel his concerns.
It also helped underscore Ali's conviction that "when you share
frankly, openly and encourage understanding, you create peace and
harmony and a respect in people's hearts."
*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.