CHICAGO — Last year, an Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) team that works in Christian-Muslim relations was invited to hold the only booth representing a Jesus-following witness at America’s largest yearly gathering of Muslims.
And this year, EMM’s Christian/Muslim Relations Team (CMRT) was invited back to the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA’s) annual convention — this time with a special request.
Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the recently-retired national director of ISNA’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, suggested that the team return with 3–4,000 free copies of “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue,” a book co-authored by CMRT founder David W. Shenk and his Muslim colleague Badru D. Kateregga in 1980.
Syeed hoped the book could be given to a significant number of the projected 20,000 people who would attend the convention.
“As Muslims, we believe what the Quran (3:113) teaches us about believing Christians and requires us to look for those Christians whose lives are true representatives of those values. I have known and respected Dr. Shenk and his team, who are wholeheartedly dedicated in building bridges of understanding between Muslims and Christians,” said Syeed. “This year I invited Dr. Shenk to bring his wonderful book and offer it as a gift to hundreds of participants at our 54th annual convention in Chicago.”
In response to Syeed’s request, the book’s publisher, Herald Press, offered a bulk order of the books at one-third of the original price.
“It’s great to work on a project like this where there is direct ministry impact,” said Joe Questel, director of Sales and Marketing at Herald Press. “The challenge for us was to be able to supply (the books) at a price that would allow (the team) to afford that many, and to do it in a very tight time frame. We had done this once before on a smaller buy, so we had a great working relationship in place to be able to scale up for this opportunity.”
“I was very impressed ... how quickly they raised the funds,” added Questel. Community members gave toward the bulk purchase through an online fundraiser held by EMM.
The CMRT was able to arrive at the June 30–July 3 convention with 2,500 Christian-Muslim dialogue books in tow.
“It was really a step of faith to carry all those books in,” said the book’s co-author and CMRT member Shenk, who made his first appearance at the convention this year.
His teammate Andres Prins agreed. “We were in a sea of booths, and I had little faith that the 2,500 books would all be taken by people who happened to pass by our booth,” he said. The CMRT’s booth was one of over 400 stands representing various Muslim-oriented organizations.
To the team members’ delight, however, the book was specially promoted throughout the convention. Syeed, this year’s ISNA Community Service Recognition Award winner, even mentioned the book’s importance in his acceptance speech.
Throughout the convention, the CMRT distributed all but 300 copies of “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue,” each containing a welcoming and explanatory letter from authors Kateregga and Shenk.
Syeed said the book was a valued gift at the convention. “Our people appreciated this kind gesture and cherished (Shenk’s) book as a powerful tool for advancing better understanding and partnership between the two faith communities. We will continue to build solidarity against destructive hate and mutual demonization, and devote our resources to shaping a world of love and mutual respect,” he said.
The team’s impression was that Shenk’s book fits in with ISNA’s goal to help Muslims coexist peacefully with, and contribute to, the modern world.
Jonathan Bornman, a CMRT member who attended the convention last year, said that to him, “it seems clear that ISNA sees themselves as a modernizing movement in Islam, so that North American Muslims can lead the way for the rest of the world in nurturing civil society.”
“Part of our calling as Anabaptists is to support that commitment,” added Shenk.
One of Shenk’s favorite moments at the convention occurred when an attendee said his 12-year-old son had picked up a copy of the book the day before and read it for hours late into the night. “That showed that the book is written with the simplicity that allows a 12-year-old to find it interesting,” said Shenk.
“A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue” has twelve chapters by Kateregga sharing a Muslim witness, followed by Shenk’s twelve chapters sharing a Christian witness. Shenk said his and Kateregga’s goal in writing the book was to represent each faith as accurately as possible.
“There are so many misunderstandings. This book has a commitment to faiths being communicated faithfully and understandably,” he said.
The CMRT felt that their book, and their presence, received a warm welcome at the convention.
“The hospitality was amazing! We felt so welcomed. People would ask what the books were about, and we had wonderful conversations,” said David Shenk’s wife Grace Shenk, another CMRT member.
One such conversation involved a sincere attempt to convert Grace Shenk to Islam. A visitor to the CMRT’s booth quoted numerous biblical proof-texts to convince her that Christianity didn’t make sense. She assured the man that her faith fully satisfied her.
Bornman said the ISNA Convention makes space for difficult conversations like these. He’s observed that many Christians are very hesitant to have their faith challenged or to face difficult questions when interacting with Muslims.
Whether easy or challenging, Prins found each conversation he had at the convention to be enriching. “Attending events like this ISNA Convention, experiencing once again the generous reception of our Muslim hosts and their sincere questions regarding the gospel and concern for better relations, convinces me more than ever that these encounters are ones that all Christ-followers should be actively seeking out,” he said.