Friends, Not Enemies

Date Posted: 
Monday, May 2, 2016

In Oman, Christian and Muslim women learn to see each other in a new light.

“Terrorism is not what Islam is about.”

This concept became clear to Lesley Mazzotta during a trip to Oman.

“I’ve spoken with Muslim people and met their children and seen their lives,” she says. “I realized, at least in Oman, how pious they are, and how welcoming and warm they are.”

Mazzotta was one of nine RCA women who traveled to the Middle Eastern country of Oman in November—a trip inspired by the people Mazzotta had met there the year before.

“When I was over there, I had a clear understanding that I needed to bring to a group of women back. I had a very powerful conversation with a woman leader at the Grand Mosque in Muscat. It made me realize how beneficial it would be for Christian women and Muslim women—and women of any type—to get together and have conversation about the spiritual and societal issues that affect us globally.”

Mazzotta partnered with RCA Women’s Transformation and Leadership to plan a trip. When she returned with eight other women a year later, she took them to the Grand Mosque to meet that woman she had spoken with, Naima.

“When we went to the Grand Mosque in Muscat, we got a private tour with Naima. We sat on the floor of the women’s prayer hall, then went into the main hall. She let us ask any questions we wanted. Then she had her daughters and friends show us how they pray, so we could understand.” Muslim women also asked their visitors questions about Christianity. Later in the week, the group studied passages from the Gospels with Muslim women and shared what those Scripture passages meant to them.

“Those human connections with people that sometimes we think of as ‘the other’ really transformed every woman in the group,” Mazzotta says.

Growing understanding

Witnessing the Muslim women praying was also a connecting point for trip member Phyllis Palsma. She was surprised to discover that her own prayers to God include many of the same words she heard prayed by Muslim women.

“As they were praying, Naima was translating the prayers,” Palsma says. “What struck me was how much of those prayers I could easily pray. There was a doxology in the midst of those prayers.”  

The trip included numerous opportunities to connect with Muslim women. The group also worshiped with Christians at Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic, and Protestant churches. And they learned from RCA ministers Doug Leonard and Justin Meyers. Meyers currently serves and Leonard previously served at Al Amana Centre to improve Christian-Muslim relations. Leonard is now director of RCA Global Mission.

For Palsma, the trip provided context for understanding her Muslim friends back in New Jersey. “It helped me understand their faith traditions and practices, to understand why wearing the scarf, the hijab, is an important thing [for them]. We Westerners tend to look at that as constrictive, but I don’t see it that way anymore.”

Learning by example

When Palsma was invited to go on the trip, she realized how helpful it could be. “It began to click in me that the church that my husband serves is supporting [RCA mission coworkers] Ken and Marcia Bradsell in Oman. The church I was serving at that time as an interim supports Doug Leonard. I’m living in a community where the Muslim population is growing.” Joining the trip, she says, just made sense.
“In Oman, Muslims and Christians and all faith traditions can reside together and have respect for one another,” Palsma says. “It is a model of lifestyle that I’d love to see every community have. This can be done. But it takes work to do that. It takes the work of getting to know your neighbor, and being willing to be in relationship with your neighbor, even if your neighbor is different from you.”  

Overcoming fear

The women flew home on November 13—the day terrorists attacked multiple locations in Paris, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. For Palsma and Mazzotta, the anti-Muslim rhetoric following the attacks was hard to stomach.

Mazzotta had lived in New York City on September 11, and she had heard many stereotypes about Muslims. Yet after this trip, they all rang hollow. “When we came back while the Paris bombings were happening, it was very sad to hear the anti-Muslim sentiment. After having this experience with these beautiful, loving, peaceful Muslim people, I understand that you can’t equate Islam with terrorism.”

“We have to remember that the Islamists, the perpetrators of the attacks, are terrorists and represent only 4/100ths of 1 percent of Muslims worldwide,” says Doug Leonard. “When the horror of the Paris attacks were broadcast throughout the world, all of my Muslim friends in Oman were deeply shocked, sickened, and troubled by the events. We are all affected by terrorism committed in the name of Islam. There are also Hindu terrorists, Buddhist terrorists, Christian terrorists, and secular terrorists.

“Terrorists are the enemy, not Muslims.”

Palsma’s experience has enabled her to share a different perspective with those who express fear. “When people start to talk about ISIS, and start to echo the fear that’s coming from politicians and from the news media, I’m able to speak into that,” Palsma says. “I say, ‘There is another way. And let me tell you about my experience in Oman.

“‘I was in a place where I saw [Christians and Muslims getting along]. I felt very safe there. The respect that I experienced and saw, that is something we can have. But it begins by getting to know your neighbor and being in relationship.’”

“All the women came back inspired to talk to their churches about what they learned, and do something that’s relevant and meaningful in an interfaith way,” Mazzotta says. She’s making plans in her own context as director of spiritual formation at Community Reformed Church in Manhasset, New York, on Long Island.

“We’re right next door to mosques and synagogues,” she says. “There are things we can do to break down barriers—reaching out to them in some way, a potluck or a joint youth event, or even writing them letters after Ramadan.”

 

Join the next women’s trip to Oman. Email lesleymazzotta@gmail.com to sign up.

Pray for understanding between faiths, rather than conflict.

Get to know someone from another faith background on a deeper level.
 

[Photos by Liz Testa]

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