Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Burning Qurans

Screenshot from Mike Ghouse's video.

Screenshot from Mike Ghouse's video.

Three years ago, a nobody from nowhere got famous for doing something unpleasant.

The self-ordained pastor of an unknown Florida church threatened to burn a Quran. And then he did it. And then others with their own intentions picked up the story and used it to inflame Muslims in several nations.

The result: At least 50 people were killed, including seven United Nations employees.

Now that nobody is back, threatening to burn 3,000 Qurans on Wednesday as a “memorial” to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

You may have noticed I’ve not named the man. That’s not an accident. Publicity is what he wants and I had decided that my small protest against him would be to not contribute to it. While I defend his legal right to do this, nobody needs to add to his spotlight.

And then I heard about a planned counterdemonstration by a Muslim interfaith activist, Mike Ghouse, who’s been plugging away at his cause for years. This year he’s bringing his 10th annual “Unity Day USA” to the same Florida town where the pastor has threatened to burn the Qurans.

Our Obsession With Violence and the Stories You’re Not Supposed to Hear

Typewriter, sematadesign /

Typewriter, sematadesign /

Upon my recent return from the Middle East (with The Global Immersion Project), I was struck more than ever before at our Western infatuation around military aggression, violence, and division. Not only are these the primary narratives we are fed through our major media outlets, they are the narratives we subconsciously embrace through the latest bestseller, box office hit, or video game. Violence, death, and division have become normative. We are becoming numb to the very things that we – as ambassadors of hope and reconciliation – are to turn from as Resurrection People. It is as though there is a stranglehold on our on our ability to see and participate in the stories of healing and new life.  

As surprising as this may be, embedded in the midst of these conflicts are endless stories of hope that never make the latest headline or sound bite. And in the times I've followed Jesus INTO these places of conflict, I continue to encounter stories of peace and hope that embody the Gospel message, stories by real people, happening right now, in places usually known only for conflict, violence, and death.

Pope Pens Personal Message to Muslims at Ramadan’s End

Pope Francis in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

In message published on Friday, Pope Francis took the rare step of personally expressing his “esteem and friendship” to the world’s Muslims as they prepare to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast.

While it is a long-established Vatican practice to send messages to the world’s religious leaders on their major holy days, those greetings are usually signed by the Vatican’s department for interfaith dialogue.

In his message, Francis explains that in the first year of his papacy he wanted to personally greet Muslims, “especially those who are religious leaders.”

Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had fraught relations with Muslims. In a 2006 speech he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Muhammad had only brought “evil and inhuman” things to the world, sparking a worldwide crisis in Christian-Muslim relations.

Sikhs Hopeful on Anniversary of Shooting

Aug. 5, 2012 vigil in Wisconsin, RNS photo by Lacy Landre

Aug. 5, 2012 vigil in Wisconsin, RNS photo by Lacy Landre

One year after a gunman opened fire in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., killing six worshippers, Sikhs say they are hopeful about the future and even more determined to be better understood.

“The legacy of Oak Creek is not one of bloodshed,” said Valarie Kaur, founding director of the interfaith group Groundswell, a project of Auburn Seminary in N.Y.

“[It’s of] how a community rose to bring people together to heal and to organize for lasting social change,” she told the PBS television program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”

Do Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor: The Surfer Boy and the Receptionist

The ninth commandment illustration, Siarhei Tolak /

The ninth commandment illustration, Siarhei Tolak /

"And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:1, 16

Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young, 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Fla. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment, and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again, and began to set his life straight.

After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you?" 

Ramadan, a Shared Table, and Following Jesus

Breaking bread, Shaiith /

Breaking bread, Shaiith /

 Last night, my wife Janny and I had the honor of sharing a table with a gathering of local Muslims for an Iftar meal. It is currently Ramadan, which means the Muslim community around the globe fasts everyday day from sunrise to sunset. No food. No water. No tobacco. No sex. Each night they have a celebration feast to break their daily fast called the Iftar meal. It is sacred, joyous, and a time to sit with those they love to worship the One they love, Allah (which is simply the Arabic translation of God).  

It was into that sacred gathering that they expanded the table and pulled up a seat for us and a few other Christian and political leaders throughout San Diego. Their hope was simply to create space in their daily practice for their neighbors to experience life with them. They were both acknowledging city leaders who have been proactive in creating an environment of dignity and mutual relationship, and creating a space for new/renewed understanding of one another. Acknowledging our core faith differences, they made clear that it should in no way detract from our ability to share a common vision for the good of our city. We are neighbors who live, work, and play on the same streets with a common desire to see deep, charitable relationships, sustainable economy, and mutual understanding and a celebration of diversity.

As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move toward relationships with those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and in need of love. We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may or may not agree with. No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.

A Jew and a Mormon Find Common Ground Midair

Airline seating, Thorsten Nieder /

Airline seating, Thorsten Nieder /

During a layover in the Phoenix airport on Friday, I caught the tail end of President Barack Obama’s remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. Struck by Obama’s words, I said to no one in particular, “It’s about time he said something about this.” The man next to me looked in my direction as I walked to get a snack, and I considered for a second going back and asking his impression of the president’s remarks. I kept walking toward the green licorice, but fate had other plans.

Who ended up being in seat 18B next to me? Yep. We smiled as we made eye contact, a mutual recognition that we had an overdue conversation coming and the time to have it.

For a living, I teach and facilitate dialogue. I train others how to — and why to — have challenging conversations that transform relationships and design community change. I have facilitated more than 10,000 hours of dialogue in the past 15 years.

I was feeling confident and curious. We got right into it.

“Well, looks like we are supposed to talk about it,” I said as he laughed. “What did you think of the president’s remarks?”

“I think I thought differently than you did,” John said

When Doing the 'Christian Thing' Isn’t the Right Thing

Pedestrians passing by homeless person, uros1210 /

Pedestrians passing by homeless person on the street, uros1210 /

I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campus, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy that gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

Is Religious Freedom At Risk in U.S.?

RNS photo by Lauren Markoe

Amardeep Singh (l), Rev. Eugene Rivers, Shaykha Reima Yosif at religious freedom conference. RNS photo by Lauren Markoe

In a conference full of people who champion traditional religious values, Amardeep Singh knew that everyone might not appreciate his recounting of the “uncomfortable” cab ride he had taken the previous day.

Singh, a featured speaker at the second annual National Religious Freedom Conference in Washington on Thursday, told the several hundred attendees that his D.C. taxi driver had the radio tuned to a religiously minded commentator, who was explaining that women become lesbians because they had been abused.

His cab story — both his telling and the reaction to it — reveals fault lines in the coalition of Americans concerned that government and popular culture are eroding religious freedom and trying to banish religion from the public sphere.