Honoring our interfaith neighbors, 800 years later

Spirit of ministry

Wood plaque - St. Francis and The Sultan by Brother Robert Lenz, OFM
Wood plaque - St. Francis and The Sultan by Brother Robert Lenz, OFM

By Vince Hatt, affiliate

“Our children are becoming afraid.” In January 2016, these words were spoken by Daoud Jandal, a member of the Muslim community in La Crosse, Wisconsin. We agreed to meet to do something about this. He would bring some Muslims and I would bring some empathetic non-Muslims.

Before we met, I needed to know more about Islam. I picked up “Islam for Dummies” at a bookstore. The biggest surprise for me was how the “Five Pillars of Islam” have parallels with Christianity.

The first pillar is believing in one God. The next three pillars are rules for prayer, almsgiving and fasting. These are exactly the topics of Jesus in Matthew 6, the gospel Catholics hear every Ash Wednesday. Their rules are more exact than ours: they pray five times a day and fast a whole month for Ramadan. 

The fifth pillar is to make a pilgrimage once in one’s life to Mecca. While Catholics have no similar rule, my pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy, was an experience that made me Franciscan down to the bottom of my feet.

In Assisi, the stories of Francis became my stories. I felt called “to preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

This included the story of Francis and the sultan. All FSPA and affiliates know the story. In 1219, during the Crusades, Francis crossed enemy lines wanting to meet the Muslim leader, the sultan of Egypt. He did this unarmed and was thoroughly beaten before he eventually did meet the sultan. They became friends and connected at a deep spiritual level. For me, this became my model in approaching Muslims — to come in peace and honor their spirituality.

One month after that meeting in 2016, La Crosse Interfaith Shoulder to Shoulder Network began. We stand shoulder to shoulder primarily with Muslims but also support efforts of groups standing with other marginalized people. At FSPA’s 2018 mission assembly, several sisters and affiliates committed to joining our efforts.

Our work focuses first on education. Often, the first word that comes to mind when Islam is mentioned is “terrorism.” This is a false stereotype. The huge majority of Muslims are peace-loving people. 
How would we like it if the first word that came to the minds of others when they hear the word Christian is “terrorist”? Yet, many white supremacists claim to be Christians.

Recently, Sister Sue Ernster asked if LISSN would like to co-sponsor an event on Nov. 21 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the meeting of Francis and the sultan. We were delighted! Father Michael Calabria, an expert on Islam who demonstrates how it enriched Franciscan prayer and Christian art, will help us remember the 1219 meeting as well as the gifts that have come to us because of it.  

I hope some of my Muslim friends will attend. They are not familiar with the story of the sultan and Francis. I hope many of you attend also. Let the Francis of 1219 teach us how to honor our interfaith neighbors in 2019.

About the event: FSPA is collaborating with Viterbo University, LISSN, and Viterbo Ministries to bring Father Michael Calabria to Viterbo University’s Fine Arts Center on Nov. 21, 2019 at 7 p.m. He will speak on Muslim concerns, from the lens of Francis and the Sultan, on the 800th anniversary of their meeting. Father Michael is a Muslim and art scholar who teaches at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, New York.

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