For the past month, Muslims worldwide have been observing the holy month of Ramadan with daily fasting from sunrise until sundown. And every evening they’ve had an iftar—the meal during Ramadan with which Muslims end their daily fast. Several ELCA congregations and worshiping communities around the country joined their Muslim neighbors to host or participate in interfaith iftars.
Augustana Lutheran, Sioux Falls, S.D., and the mission congregation it shares building space with, Pueblo de Dios, hosted their first iftar this year. Through the congregations’ friendship with a member of the Muslim community in Sioux Falls, Amy Martinell, pastor of Augustana, proposed hosting an iftar. The idea was met with agreement from Augustana’s congregation, Pueblo de Dios and the Muslim communities from the three mosques in town.
Almost 60 people attended the iftar. Martinell said it was a great way to connect and get to know each other, adding, “For some of our members, they’d never met a Muslim or didn’t know one well, so it was a great experience to sit and talk with them. There was a bit of discomfort on both sides—Christian and Muslim. We were worried about doing the wrong things and there was some anxiety from the Muslim community that we wouldn’t have everything like dates or space for prayer. It was important for both sides that we didn’t let that discomfort stop us. And when the food came out and we sat and ate together, the discomfort melted away and we became one community.”
David Zellmer, bishop of the South Dakota Synod, attended the iftar and said Muslims and Christians have a long history of living together on the plains.
“It’s not just a recommendation that we love our neighbor; it’s a commandment from Jesus,” Zellmer said. “We provided a safe place for all three Muslim communities to come together and break the fast as a group. I think, as Lutherans, we know and understand how to do hospitality and should continue to do it.”
The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) hosted regular iftars with a Turkish community that lives near its Hyde Park neighborhood. “We worked together to host a weekly iftar meal during Ramadan the last two years,” said Sara Trumm, interim director of A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice at LSTC. “They’re informal yet welcoming gatherings with a potluck, and they’re open to whoever wants to come. About 60 to 100 people usually come, with most being Turkish families, and students and faculty from the school.”
Trumm said they’ve found that the common act of sharing a meal is an opportunity where people feel comfortable gathering with others from different backgrounds for conversation and engagement. “We’ve discovered that people are at all different places with their knowledge of Islam and their exposure to Muslims,” she said. “Meeting your first Muslim and having a meal with them is a big deal, and sometimes we’re diving into really deep topics about fasting and spiritual disciplines, and sometimes we’re just getting to know each other and watching our kids play together and become friends.”
When Christians and Muslims engage, Trumm said, it’s an opportunity to learn about another Abrahamic tradition, which can challenge people to look at their faith from a new perspective as they learn how someone else understands God to be at work in everyone’s lives.
“Right now, with Islamophobia as strong as it is, it’s important for people to be informed about what Islam is so they don’t fall prey to some of the negative stereotyping and falsities being shared, especially with one of the Ten Commandments telling us to not bear false witness against our neighbors,” she said. “It’s our calling to show hospitality to all people, so get to know your Muslim neighbors and treat them with care.”
Terry Kyllo is an ELCA pastor and director of Neighbors in Faith, an ELCA, Episcopal Church and Muslim partner organization in Washington state that works to encourage neighborly relationships between Muslims and people of all faith and non-faith traditions. During Ramadan, the organization encouraged people to host or take part in interfaith iftars.
“Neighbors in Faith helps equip and encourage people to get into relationship with Muslim neighbors, who are under a significant process of dehumanization in our country, which leads to violence,” Kyllo said. “By either hosting or taking part in these interfaith meals, people get together, get to know each other and interrupt this process of dehumanization.”
Neighbors in Faith worked with Shoulder-to-Shoulder, an interfaith organization dedicated to ending anti-Muslim sentiment, to promote interfaith iftars and share resources for how to host one. The ELCA is a founding member of Shoulder-to-Shoulder.
“What actually changes for people who are rooted in fear is to meet a Muslim and realize they’re just human too,” Kyllo said. “The iftars are a beautiful way to begin to understand the basics of Islam and how many similarities we have. And they help our Muslim neighbors to see that they aren’t alone, that we want to learn from them and are willing to stand in solidarity with them.”
Kyllo said hosting or participating in iftars during Ramadan are meaningful opportunities, and that it’s a responsibility of Christians to continue engaging Muslim neighbors to establish trust and solidarity in standing firm against Islamophobia.
“I’m very proud of what Lutherans are doing right now and proud that we’ve been a part of Shoulder-to-Shoulder since its inception,” he said. “We should be encouraged but keep doing the hard work.”