Salunga, Pa. – During three weeks of teaching in seminaries in Europe from August 31 through September 21, David W. Shenk of Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) said that discussions and conversations everywhere were about what the response should be “to the refugee crisis in the midst of the enormous chaos happening now.”
Shenk, a member of EMM’s Christian Muslim Relations Team, taught graduate classes at seminaries in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. All the classes had some aspect of learning about Muslims while two of the classes had “lively encounters with Islam.”
“The courses were so timely and so relevant to what is happening with hundreds of thousands refugees coming into Europe,” Shenk said. “The interest among the students, many of whom were leaders, pastors, or studying to become pastors, was phenomenal.”
“While I was there German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany will welcome a million refugees this year,” Shenk said. “Europe is simply overwhelmed.”
“The UN has run out of money for food and they are cutting rations while more people are coming. Jordan is coping with 5 million refugees; Lebanon is not far behind that number. Everywhere I went the conversation centered around ‘What do we do?’ ‘How do we respond?’”
Dr. Bernhard Ott, academic dean of the European School of Culture and Theology, arranged Shenk’s lectures both in Korntal, Germany, and Bienenberg, Switzerland.
In Korntal,Germany, at the European School of Culture and Theology, Shenk presented an intensive one-week course, “The church in dynamic engagement with Muslims.” Shenk co-taught the course with a teacher whose roots run deep into African Islam.
“My co-teacher knew both the Qu’ran and Bible thoroughly and brought fresh insights to the students,” Shenk said. “Students were very interested in learning how to cultivate peaceful relations in a very tumultuous world. They were intrigued by the enormous energy that Muslims put into balancing the scales concerning good and bad deeds but even so didn’t have assurance that they were ‘part of the fold.’”
Most members of the class had never been to a Muslim place of worship so the seminary arranged for the class to spend an afternoon in a local mosque where they had very good conversations with Muslim leaders. “All want to go back for further conversation,” Shenk said. “We share the deep conviction that we must learn to talk to our neighbors. With another million coming to Germany, people must become acquainted with the Muslims in their midst.”
In Amsterdam, Shenk taught a course at Tyndale Theological Seminary, arranged by Dr. Philip A. Gottschalk, an EMM worker and Chair of the division of theological and historical studies. The topic was once again about the church having a lively encounter with the world of Islam.
“Seminary leadership decided to invite two Muslim theologians to participate in the classes for the first time in their history. It was the first time for many of the Christians to have a forum to interact with Islam.”
“I think many were surprised at what they were hearing. There were free-flowing questions, challenges, and open doors to bear witness,” Shenk said. “Stereotypes were broken down and each side got a hearing. There was a very nice dinner with the faculty, students from all over the world, and Muslim guests. The conversation went on and on until quite late into the evening.”
“The very first step in developing relationships is to talk to each other respectfully,” Shenk said. “We can listen and learn but not sacrifice our stand for Christ.”
“David’s series of four lectures was very well received,” Gottschalk said. “We have many African students and they appreciated him as an African.”
“David’s tone is always conciliatory and he encouraged us to share the gospel plainly. He gave the class both theoretical knowledge and practical steps how to apply it,” Gottschalk said. “Ninety-five percent of the students would welcome him back.”
At Bienenberg Theological Seminary in Bienenberg, Switzerland, Shenk taught a week-long class on Christian Faith and Religions. Islam was of particular interest to the students. While there, Shenk attended a Swiss Mennonite church and was impressed to see adults and children collecting food and supplies to send to Syria.
“The salt of Christian compassion runs deep within European culture,” Shenk said. “Germany has done very well in welcoming refugees. I think the world can see that the roots of this compassion is the Christian faith. My modest word to the churches was to jump in with both feet when it comes to the refugees. If the government is showing compassion how much more should the church.”
As to the question many students asked, “What about suspected terrorists that might come in with the flow of refugees?”, Shenk said it is tough to deal with that reality. “We want to be generous; it is good for governments to be cautious and wise. But we must not let our caution overwhelm our commitment to compassion.”
Shenk, a member of EMM’s Christian Muslim Relations Team, is the author of the four-book Christians Meeting Muslims series. Jonathan Bornman and Andres Prins, two members of the CMRT, will be in Germany from November 1 - 19 to resource churches about how to welcome Muslim refugees.