Rev. Neil Smith is the minister at Cessnock Uniting Church. He has helped host several Uniting Church Iftar events at Hamilton, Broadmeadow and Sefton Uniting Churches and has some helpful advice for congregations thinking of inviting Muslim community members to an event at their church during Ramadan.
For Muslim people, the Iftar meal breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan which this year starts on 15 May and finishes on 14 June. Guests may be invited to celebrate the Iftar meal with Muslims as part of a larger occasion promoting friendship, unity and social harmony.
All the events we hosted were very well received, Rev. Smith said, “I suggest that first you build a relationship of trust with your local Islamic community before making a bigger commitment to host an event.”
Rev. Smith, a member of the Uniting Church Assembly ‘Relations with Other Faiths Working Group’, explained that the close friendship between the Uniting Church and the Muslim community in Newcastle began with two religious leaders seated together for dinner about 10 years ago.
Rev. Neil Smith recalls meeting Sheikh Mohammed Khamis at an Iftar dinner held in 2008 by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation at Newcastle University.
The dinner took place just weeks after Sheikh Khamis arrived in Australia from his home country Egypt. He was appointed Imam of the Newcastle Mosque. At the time, Rev. Smith was Minister at the New Lambton Uniting Church in Newcastle.
“Immediately it became obvious that we each needed the other,” said Rev. Smith. “I was keen to encourage some of my Christian friends to broaden their network of friendships to include people from different backgrounds and the Sheikh was keen to learn more about the ‘Australian culture’.”
Rev. Smith reflects on his meeting with Sheikh Khamis all those years ago that lead to a second Iftar dinner hosted by the Hamilton-Broadmeadow Uniting Church in 2015 with about 20 members of the Newcastle Muslim community.
Friendship that transcends culture and creed
“What followed was not only a gathering of knowledge about the faith of the ‘other’ but a deep and lasting bond of love and friendship which transcends culture and creed,” Rev. Smith said.
The friendship grew between the two men and their faith communities as they continued to find ways to help one another. Their respective faith communities have kept in contact, meeting at times of celebration and supporting each other in times of crisis.
Rev. Smith encourages Uniting Church congregations to host a meal, a small gathering, visit a Muslim family and to start by even visiting a Mosque.
During Ramadan members of the Uniting Church may be invited by the Muslim community to attend Iftar dinners. “If Uniting Churches can also host an event, these will be very well received. By offering this gesture of hospitality we value and respect the faith and friendship of our Muslim friends,” said Rev. Smith.
Rev. Smith agrees there are definitely some protocols that are helpful to know and to follow. The Assembly Relations with other Faiths Working Group has created some very useful resources here. In conjunction with Relations With Other Faiths the Synod of NSW and the ACT has produced some Congregational resources here.
Hosting and hospitality
By working with the local community you are hosting, you can offer the best hospitality.
“There is no substitute for reaching out to the Islamic community and getting some first-hand knowledge.”
“People are very receptive. Ramadan is a special time of building relationships. It’s not about trying to change perspectives but more about getting to know one another,” says Rev. Smith.
Typically, on the night of the event a member from the Uniting Church would give gave a welcome to the guest Sheikh or Inman who then recites the prayer from the Qur’an in Arabic with the English translation.
From these humble beginnings, “one of the ideas has been that we could start doing things together and not just talking. That we embark on some activities together to care for the environment or we look to assist people who are suffering in the community. The rationale for this being that if we work alongside each other we strengthen the gifts that we have in common and a bond of cooperation can flourish.”
If you would like to find out more from Rev. Smith about his experience, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org