The 7th to the 11th of April, 2011 a group of 7 students from the University of Uppsala, Sweden visited New York. Several of the participants were clergy within Church of Sweden and the trip was part of a course in Urban Theology. The group was lead by Rev. Dr. Jonas Ideström and during the time on Manhattan we visited several congregations, met with their representatives and participated in worship. The course has focused on the concrete, social and material expressions of faith in an Urban setting and the theoretical reflections has been guided by questions concerning the interaction between religious social bodies and the wider urban context. The course mainly concerns expressions of churches and Christian faith.
Using a combination of ecclesiological theory and social theory on the City the observations have been analyzed and discussed. What kind identity space is created in relation to the life of the congregations and how does it relate to different aspects of urban space as identity space? As part of the study trip the group participated in the Friday prayer at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, 130 W. 113th Street in Harlem. The visit gave important insight into interreligious dimensions of the faith on Manhattan.
After lunch in Harlem we found our way to the mosque where we were met by great hospitality. The women in the group joined women at the mosque and stayed at the ground floor. The two men of the group were lead upstairs. It was very clear that we were expected and that they were used to visitors. In the sanctuary a few chairs were reserved in the back where we were seated. The room on second floor where the men were gathered was gradually filled by people greeting one another and praying.
After a sung prayer the Imam, Al-Hajj Talib Abdur- Rashid, started talking. He preached with authority. From an interreligious perspective his sermon was of great interest. His main point was that God has a plot that is embodied and spelled out by his prophets. From the earliest prophets up until our time those who have made the will of God clear have often been confronted, even killed. That is a pattern we can see. People who walk the path of God are often seen as a threat by those who are in power. He read from the Gospel of Mark to make his point clear. He also gave examples from sermons by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to show that Dr. King’s message is rooted in the life and message of the prophets. The message to the congregation was clear: stay on the path of the prophets. Be firm and loyal to Allah and the path that he has shown through the prophets. It’s a path of peace and respect. God is one but he has several prophets. After a prayer, that followed the sermon, the group met with the Imam. He told us about his way into to the Islamic tradition and about the work of the mosque. He also gave us a view of a post September 11 Manhattan. According to him September 11 has lead to an increase in interreligious activity in New York. Many religious social bodies have refused to let an act of terror define their relationship to one another. After the conversation with the Imam we talked to some people outside the mosque and they were convinced that the faith and life of the mosque had contributed to the positive development of the neighborhood. In the group discussions following the visit it was clear that the participants had been greatly inspired by the prayer and the conversation with the Imam.
A few Sundays after the visit I gave a sermon in a parish in northern Stockholm. In the sermon I told the congregation about my experience at the mosque and how that can be seen as a concrete sign of hope and peace in violent world. Thanks to the hospitality of the mosque and the interreligious work on Manhattan a conversation between a Muslim context in Harlem and a Christian context in Stockholm, Sweden, was possible to conduct. The importance of such work cannot be overestimated.
Rev. Dr. Jonas Ideström, University of Uppsala, Sweden