“For me, the Alhambra became a metaphor for what can happen when people work together peacefully across religions and cultures,” said David Shenk, after visiting the historic Moorish palace while on a trip to promote Christian-Muslim relations in Spain. “When there is intercommunal peace, the result can be phenomenal beauty.”
With a vision to encourage peaceful engagement between peoples in Spain, Shenk and his teammate Andres Prins preached, taught, and built relational bridges in Barcelona, Terrassa, Granada, and Malaga from June 3–12, 2016, thanks to the visionary and capable coordination of Christian leaders in each location.
Shenk and Prins are members of Eastern Mennonite Missions’ Christian/Muslim Relations Team, which exists to equip Christians around the world for life-giving relationships with Muslims while bearing witness to God’s ministry of reconciliation in Jesus, according to the team’s mission and vision statements. The opportunity for Christian-Muslim engagement in Spain has increased lately, as economic immigration brings large numbers of Muslims into the country, Shenk and Prins observed.
“One reason that Christians are afraid of Muslims is the questions,” said Shenk. As he and Prins gave talks and seminars to groups of Christian leaders, congregants, and mission workers in the four Spanish cities, they prepared attendees for the questions that Muslims most commonly ask Christians, including: How can Jesus be both God and man? How can God be one if He is triune? Has the Bible been corrupted? They also familiarized audiences with the history, beliefs, and practices of Islam, in order to further equip Christians in Spain to build bridges with their Muslim neighbors.
Shenk was encouraged by his interactions with Spanish churches and Christian groups. “One thinks of the evangelical movement in Spain as being small,” he said; but the size, vitality, and number of youth in the evangelical churches he visited proved the strength of the movement.
Shenk and Prins also seized chances to engage with Muslims throughout the trip. In addition to formal meetings such as a visit with the Islamic Council of Catalonia, the pair made spontaneous visits to several mosques to share in the breaking of the Ramadan fast at sundown.
In Terrassa, a city known for its high concentration of fundamentalist Muslim believers, Shenk and Prins were welcomed in to break the fast at the large Badr Mosque of Terrassa. During the meal of chickpea soup and dates, a sheikh questioned at length the ability of Westerners like Shenk and Prins to promote peace. In response, Shenk said that every nation and human institution has its share of blame in committing evil, but that he and Prins represented Jesus’ kingdom of authentic justice and peace, which God had promised would endure forever.
On June 9, Shenk and Prins had the opportunity to speak in a venue that was neither Christian nor Muslim, but secular. The Peace and Conflicts Institute of the University of Granada invited Shenk to speak in a forum conceptualizing a new Peace Studies program that is currently being planned.
Shenk described his presentation as “radically biblical,” highlighting the contribution of Scripture to the foundations for peacemaking and civil society. Other panelists included a Palestinian imam and a university professor. Shenk and Prins perceived the audience as surprised by Shenk’s emphasis on Christian faith, but impacted by the sense of peace communicated through his remarks. In an open discussion following the panel, one professor questioned how people can promote peace in the world without first having peace in their own souls.
After a trip filled with teaching, resourcing, and building connections, Shenk and Prins hope that they have helped pave the way for dialogue and friendship between Christians and Muslims in Spain. Among other things, they hope to see church leadership forge relationships with Muslim leaders. “I think our visits are often the spark that helps things grow into more life,” said Prins.