‘They gave me the bread’
Muslim, Christians share commonalities
Soumaya Khalifah’s sermon fell in the usual place in the Holy Week rite in which clergy from the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta renewed their vows: after a Gospel passage and before the consecration of bread and wine as Holy Communion.
In this Mass, the Liturgy of the Word also included a Koran reading, including: “God, there is no god but he, the Living, the Self-Subsisting. Neither slumber overtakes him nor sleep. Unto him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth. Who is there who may intercede with him save by his leave?”
Khalifah asked leaders from the region’s 96 Episcopal parishes an obvious question: Was this a historic moment, with a Muslim woman preaching in a liturgy for an entire Christian diocese?
“I truly believe that interfaith works is the civil rights movement for the 21st century,” said Khalifah, head of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. “Faith is used to divide us and we need to make intentional efforts to bring ourselves together. Normally we worship, associate and have friends from our own faith tradition, our own race. …
“When I look at the beautiful creations of God and how they worship, I see my Christian brothers and sisters. I think of their love for Jesus — peace be upon him — and their trying to live by his specific example of loving his enemies.”
After her sermon, Atlanta Bishop Robert Wright invited Khalifah to join clergy and others at the altar for the Eucharistic prayers consecrating the bread and wine. As the worshippers stepped forward to receive Holy Communion, the bishop said Khalifah took part.
“She held out her hand to receive the Host and it is not my practice to refuse people,” Wright said. He noted that “open Communion” is common across his diocese, especially with visitors. Khalifah returned to her seat without receiving the consecrated wine, the bishop said.
“They gave me the bread,” Khalifah said. “I am a Muslim. I am not a Christian. … This service was about what we have in common, the work we can do together.”
Wright said that he hopes that, during his five years as Atlanta’s bishop, he has been “adding square footage to our whole concept of what it means to renew our vows,” as Episcopal clergy serve in a more complex and multicultural era. In 2015, he noted, this same service was held in a Jewish temple in Atlanta, with its rabbi delivering the sermon.
Acknowledging that interfaith work will be a larger part of future ministry is, said the bishop, “a no-brainer” in a world in which the
Muslim population continues to rise, around the world and in an increasingly complex religious landscape in America.
For many believers, the hard question is whether interfaith activists can, on occasion, worship together as well as work together in the public square. Wright acknowledged that this is an issue that causes intense debates, even among leaders in the Episcopal Church — which has taken liberal stands on many hot-button social issues linked to sexuality, the environment and other social causes.
“If you talked with some of my colleagues in the House of Bishops, this part
of the service never would have happened,” he said. It is safe to say Khalifah “would not have been invited, she would not have been there in Holy Week and she would not have preached. None of this would have happened.”
But this service was not, Wright insisted, an example of “insipid kumbaya” interfaith activism in which leaders on both sides ignore their doctrinal differences and gloss over painful subjects. He noted that, in her sermon, Khalifah mentioned the Palm Sunday attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt and called the terrorists “a cancer to our human family,” adding that they “must be eradicated.”
Interfaith work of all kinds, Khalifah added, is one way that believers can try to isolate terrorists and weaken their power.
“Coming together and letting the world know. Today, we are setting the example of Christians and Muslims in the same space worshipping and renewing vows to God,” she said. “When we do not know, we fear. When we fear, we hate. When people get to that level — then the other is less human than they are.”