Mandy France joined Grace Lutheran Church in Dawson, Minn., as an intern about two months before the 2016 presidential election. She overheard people repeating and agreeing with negative comments spoken about Islam during the campaigns, and she thought of Ayaz Virji, chief of staff and medical director of Johnson Health Services in Dawson. As one of his patients, she knew he and his family were the only Muslims in town.

“I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if they’re feeling any of the rhetoric in this community regarding Muslims, and I wonder if this is affecting them?’ ” she said.

And it was. Virji was concerned when he learned that the majority of his county voted for Donald Trump, who talked about initiating a Muslim registry during the campaign. “That sends a message,” he said.

Earlier this year, he and France partnered to educate the community about Islam through church workshops and community talks.

Virji made his background clear: he went to a Lutheran school for 10 years and is very fond of Christianity’s message. He’s read the Bible several times, the Koran and comparative religion. “My personal belief is the light of our creator is so bright that it shines in all the different major world religions,” Virji said.

People condemned him for his views, but they didn’t want him to leave. Virji—who received his medical degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and left a high-paying job to go to the rural Midwest—is beloved as a physician.

France, meanwhile, had people question her faith, values and ability to be a spiritual leader.

A personal perspective

After the election, France contacted Virji. She decided that for her pastoral intern project she would create the interreligious workshops to explain Islam, and she hoped Virji would offer his perspective on his religion.

Virji agreed, and the two set up a three-part series at Grace, with France opening the first workshop by explaining what interreligious dialogue was—and what it wasn’t.

“There was a lot of fear … some people were even questioning whether it was OK to learn about another religion, and would it in any way affect their relationship with Christ,” France said. “It was so interesting. I think people were afraid if they found anything they could validate in another religion, they felt they were not fully Christian.”

France emphasized that, from a Lutheran perspective, salvation comes from Jesus Christ, and for those who don’t confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, Christians simply trust that God has control over their fate.

“There was a lot of fear … some people were even questioning whether it was OK to learn about another religion, and would it in any way affect their relationship with Christ,” — Mandy France

She also stressed that interreligious dialogue isn’t meant to convert someone to another religion. “It’s not even to agree with one another—it’s to view another person as a person,” she said.

Congregants were very receptive after the first workshop, France said. She continued her interreligious education series using a study guide called “My Neighbor is Muslim” from Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota to provide a basic understanding of Islam: why women wear a hijab, why Muslims don’t eat pork, etc.

The culmination of her internship project was to have Virji speak about his experiences in America as a Muslim and explain his faith.

More than 450 people showed up at the local high school to hear Virji. Although there had been some resistance from the community about the event, things went well enough that France and Virji decided to host another interreligious talk in Montevideo, Minn., 20 minutes away.

“Ayaz and I talked about it and thought, the more education and the more we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder and say it’s OK to be friends with people who are different from you, the better the world might be,” France said.

Unfortunately, the backlash they received hit an all-time high, with several men calling the doctor “the anti-Christ.”

Virji vowed to never talk about his faith in public again. But after a Washington Post reporter contacted France and Virji and asked to walk in their shoes for a few days, he reconsidered.

A talk he gave in nearby Granite Falls, Minn., fared much better. “He got some hard questions, but people seemed very open, and it was a really positive experience,” France said.

Since then, the story has spread, and the response has been incredible, Virji said. He’s received more than 700 emails, letters and gifts from around the country and world, thanking him and France for their work and requesting that he continue speaking.

“A lot of pastors … and Pastor Mandy have been so supportive,” he said. “It just reminded me of the goodness in Christianity and in other faiths, and we’re all striving for the same thing. … We are all trying to serve that same message of love and charity and virtue and compassion, and if people start letting that be their focus instead of focusing on differences, then maybe … there will be movement where people will start unifying.”

Loving the neighbor

“I’m still ready to disappear back into obscurity; I’m ready to go back to simply being a country doctor,” Virji said.

But that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. He has more talks scheduled this year and is collaborating on a book with a New York Times best-selling author that will chronicle the talks and events of the last year.

“We are all trying to serve that same message of love and charity and virtue and compassion, and if people start letting that be their focus instead of focusing on differences, then maybe … there will be movement where people will start unifying.” — Ayaz Virji

Why does he continue?

“If not me, then who?” he asked.

France, too, wasn’t expecting her internship project to turn into such a widespread phenomenon, and she’s proud of what she and Virji did.

“We’re called to love each other and to love our neighbors,” France said. “Our neighbors don’t always look like us or practice like us, and that’s OK. Because at the end of the day, we’re all created beings; we’re all created by the same God.”

France recently accepted her first call to Our Savior Lutheran Church in Bird Island, Minn., about an hour and a half east of Dawson.

“People have asked me, ‘Given some of the bad stuff you encountered afterward, would you do it again?’ ” she said. “And I said, ‘In a heartbeat.’ Ayaz was able to share his story, his faith, his heart, and I do believe that what we did made a difference.

“On my last day of my internship, I think every single person thanked me for teaching them about interfaith dialogue, for teaching them that it’s OK to love people who aren’t Christian. I think my congregation [there] really had a positive experience engaging in interreligious work.”

Stephanie N. Grimoldby
Grimoldby is a freelance writer living in Salem, Wis.

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