Dr. Mark Swanson, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Director of the Islamic Studies Program at Luther Seminary, was a member of the planning committee for a conference held in St. Paul in May 2002, entitled “Muslims and Lutherans in the Twin Cities.” He explained that the impetus for the conference came from the Lutheran communities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. They had noticed the presence of many Muslims in their neighborhoods, and realized that they ought to know more about their neighbors.
The topic was broached by grassroots participants at the annual meetings of both the St. Paul and Minneapolis ELCA synods. The idea of some kind of study process, including educational events and possibly a handbook designed to teach Lutherans about Islam, was passed overwhelmingly at these meetings.
The first event was brief educational conference held in May 2001. It was publicized in Lutheran churches in St. Paul and Minneapolis, focusing on churches near mosques or in areas with large Muslim populations. About 150 people attended the two-day conference; Swanson estimates that they represented about a dozen congregations. The opening address on Friday evening was given by Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali, a Pakistani Christian, who presented a broad overview of Christian-Muslim relations in a speech entitled “Why is This Important.”
Saturday morning began with talks further discussing Christian-Muslim relations and introducing the various strands of Islam present in the Twin Cities area. Then a group of Muslims participated in a panel entitled “What Do We Hope for (and Fear from?) Our Christian Neighbors?” There was then an allotted time for prayer for the Muslims, who invited any interested Christian participants to observe the prayers. A room had been set aside at the seminary for the prayer time. Professor Swanson reported that the reaction to this invitation to prayer was very positive; there was no sense that Christian participants were concerned at Muslim prayer occurring in a Lutheran Seminary. Following the prayer time, there were two workshop sessions; participants could choose one of four workshops in each session. Topics included refugee issues; women’s perspectives on Islam; theological issues in Christian-Muslim relations; Jihad; and issues of Christian-Muslim intermarriage. The closing discussion was “Directions for the Future,” in which participants discussed what they had learned and what they wanted to do next.
Dr. Swanson was very pleased with the conference’s success. The community indicated a desire to continue the process of education, and the desire to produce a handbook to help Lutherans understand Islam was confirmed. Swanson believes that in general, Christian-Muslim relations in the Twin Cities are very good, despite some exceptions, such as the arson of a mosque in St. Paul. It is an important sign that the Lutheran churches, of their own accord, not only acknowledged the Muslim presence in their areas, but also acknowledged how little they knew about their new neighbors and lobbied for education in that area. Continuation of this grassroots education has the potential vastly to improve interfaith relations, as everyday Lutherans learn to understand the faith of the Muslims whom they encounter in parking lots, on the street, and in the workplace.