By: Christa Meland
The people of Christ United Methodist Church in Maplewood firmly believe that God is calling them to be meaningful partners in their community—which they’ve come to learn has a lot of religious diversity.
Two years ago, they initiated a partnership with a nearby elementary school that has a large population of Somali students and staff. Members regularly volunteer in classrooms and help out at school events—and every teacher and staff member at the school has a prayer partner in the congregation who prays for them on a regular basis. Members have also visited the Islamic Society of Woodbury and begun working with a Hindu group.
So when Rev. Rachael Warner heard about the Minnesota Council of Churches’ Blessed Ramadan campaign, she knew her congregation would be interested. The council, which the Minnesota Conference is part of, has made available lawn signs that say, “To our Muslim neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” Thousands of churches and individuals around the state have ordered and displayed the signs to show support, particularly in light of the recent anti-Muslim sentiments that have been expressed across the country. (Rev. Jerad Morey, associate pastor at Northfield United Methodist Church, also works for the council and played a key role in the campaign.)
“The signs are a way of publicly showing that we are not afraid to love our neighbors and that we’re not afraid of our neighbors,” said Warner, who put signs on church property and in her own yard, and made them available to her congregation.
Ramadan, which this year goes from June 5 to July 5, is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. During this time, they fast from sunrise to sunset to practice compassion, self-restraint, and generosity.
“As I introduced the signs to my congregation, I shared that Ramadan is a time of repentance, asking for forgiveness, searching for self and God—so much like what we’ve been doing in the season of Lent,” said Warner. “Our faiths have a lot in common. Who God is calling us to be in the world is not that different, and the ways in which we are different, culturally and religiously, provide us amazing opportunities to grow and be stretched together.”
By the time Ramadan began, the Minnesota Council of Churches already had distributed close to 1,000 signs and ordered another 1,000. Some churches also printed their own. Councils in Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, and Arkansas are also participating in the campaign, along with Religions for Peace in Tennessee. At least a dozen churches in the Minnesota Conference are participating in the campaign by putting signs up on their own property and/or making them available to others.
“From neighborhood hate crimes to campaign rhetoric, we see negativity directed against Muslims,” said Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches. “But that is not who we are in Minnesota. When we are our best selves, we are a welcoming, caring, respectful community. I know people are looking for a place where they can make a difference. Anyone can signify that welcoming spirit by placing a Blessed Ramadan sign in your yard during the month of Ramadan as a gesture of witness and welcome. Imagine people all over the state participating with signs popping up all over the landscape. That’s the Minnesota I know and love.”
Rev. Donna Dempewolf, who serves Living Spirit United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, made the signs available to her congregation. She describes Living Spirit as a multi-racial congregation and said the signs are one small way to change the negative conversations directed toward Muslims.
“God calls us to be good neighbors and doesn’t define what ‘neighbor’ is,” said Dempewolf. “Being a good neighbor is being in relationship…not only to Christians, but also to people of other faiths or no faith.”
As chair of the conference’s Commission on Religion and Race, Dempewolf has also been active in making the signs available to people throughout the conference. About 75 Minnesota clergy left a clergy gathering in St. Cloud last week with a sign. More were available at annual conference session in St. Cloud.
“One of Jesus’ key missional imperatives is to love God and neighbor,” said Bishop Bruce Ough. “And John Wesley, founder of the Methodist revival movement, claimed the ultimate mark of a Methodist is one who loves God and neighbor. The Blessed Ramadan project is one small, but tangible, way we can give expression to Jesus’ radical hospitality and assure our Muslim neighbors that we stand with them.”
At Christ UMC, Warner has talked to her congregation about what it means to be Easter people. She recently recounted the biblical story of Peter visiting the Gentiles and eating things considered to be unclean. When he put aside his preconceived notions and feasted with them, he had a meaningful experience and saw an amazing outpouring of God.
“When we have conversations about Christians and Muslims, it’s not us and them,” said Warner. “It’s people who are in our neighborhood living and working together. Our job is not to put our own agenda on our neighbors. Our job is to love our neighbors.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church