By Marge Bitetti
CHINO—A few years ago a group of Third Order Franciscans heard a talk by Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, a noted speaker on interrelation and ecumenical affairs from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Diana Cerda took the message to heart and looked for a way to open a meaningful relationship with members of the Islamic faith. Her friend and fellow Third Order Franciscan, Myrna Kildare, knew that Father Michael Miller of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Chino had been meeting with the Imam of the local mosque to pray about the drought in California.
The seeds of interreligious dialogue were planted, and six months later Catholic and Muslim communities in Chino came together for an evening of prayer, fellowship and food at St. Margaret Mary on January 21.
The two communities planned the dinner together and there were delays because the previous Imam was relocated, and new dialogue had to begin with the current faith leader at the mosque, Imam Irshad Mahli. The planning involved members of the Secular Franciscans Cerda, Amella Sandoval, Bill Mussatto, Randy Rohrer, Juanito Garlitos, Kildae, Fr. Miller, Imam Mahli and volunteers from both faith communities.
The evening started with a welcome by Fr. Miller, who harkened back to historical dialogues between Christian and Muslim leaders. “In the name of God the Merciful, in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Prophet Mohammed, the God of our Christian Lord Jesus Christ, I declare that all are welcome here.
“This gathering honors a kind, temperate and humane conversation between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik Al Kamil, two religious visionaries who were bigger than the religious bigotry of their times.”
After the welcome, the evening started with the Islamic call to prayer and members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community gathered to pray with the men kneeling on prayer rugs and the women seated behind them. The members of the Catholic communities stood in silence as their Muslim neighbors prayed. Immediately following the Muslim prayers, Fr. Miller lead the Catholic gathered in a decade of the Rosary. He noted throughout the evening the similarities that are shared by both faith communities.
One similarity is the use of prayer beads; for Catholics it is the Rosary, for Muslims it is the use of Misbaha or Tesbih Beads. Misbaha is the Islamic word for prayer beads or rosary. Using these beads Muslims recite the name of Allah 99 times– it begins by reciting “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is the greatest.” It is followed by reciting “Al-hamdu lilah” (Praise be to God) then followed by “Subhan Allah” (Glory be to God). Each set of prayers is repeated 33 times. St. Margaret Mary parishioners made 200 prayer beads that were given to everyone attending the dinner.
Before the meal was served a film produced by Franciscan Media was shown. The documentary is based on a book by Sister Kathleen Warren, O.S.F., a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester, Minnesota. Sr. Kathy is a specialist in interreligious dialogue who has been involved in Muslim-Christian interaction, offering workshops and retreats about peacemaking and interreligious dialogue since 2002.
The film tells the story of the historic 1219 meeting of St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malek al-Kamil in the Middle East. Francis of Assisi traveled to Jerusalem during the Fifth Crusade. Instead of going on a mission of waging war Francis meets the Sultan and forms a bond of friendship despite the language barrier. These two men of God were thought to be enemies and instead they find that they have much in common, such as a belief in one God, an openness to strangers, a belief in serving the poor, and a yearning for peace. The film provided a sense of commonality and the ability to embrace people who celebrate different faith traditions.
“Islam is a religion of peace,” said Monas Chaudry, Community Outreach Coordinator for Baitul Hameel Mosque in Chino. “Love for all, hatred for none. Islam is not to be imposed but shared and discussed.”
After the dinner prayers were offered, the Secular Franciscans and the parishioners of St. Margaret Mary shared the prayer of St. Francis. Members of the Muslim community shared The Covenant, which was a message from Muhammad about the respect that followers of his faith should have for Christians and their places of worship. After these messages were exchanged Fr. Miller requested that everyone stand and form a large circle and again the prayer of St. Francis was recited. As the prayer ended, everyone was instructed to take a step forward out of their comfort zone and meet a stranger in the center of the circle and exchange the Franciscan greeting of peace.
Marge Bitetti is a freelance writer and a parishioner of St. Matthew in Corona.