By Danielle Kennedy
A Syrian refugee family arrived in Columbia last June during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to a welcoming party from two faiths, a moment that spawned a cross-cultural friendship that continues today.
“We wanted to make sure that we were a Christian community that was quick to respond with a positive action,” said the Rev. Julie W. Bird, pastor of McGregor Presbyterian Church.
The McGregor congregation sponsored the Muslim family through Lutheran Services of the Carolinas. When members learned the family would arrive during Ramadan, Bird reached out to Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, an organization that fosters understanding of different religions.
Through Interfaith Partners, the congregation connected with Chaudry Sadiq, president of Masjid Noor-Ul-Huda.
Sadiq, his wife and members of the Fairfield Road mosque joined a half dozen members of McGregor members at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport to welcome the family, which included a mother, father and four young children.
The group met in the passenger pick-up area outside baggage pick-up and watched as passengers exited. Anticipation for the family rose as the remaining passengers trickled out, none wearing traditional Muslim dress.
“People started flowing out to the waiting area, it was almost towards the end of passenger trail and we were in suspense, we didn’t see them,” Sadiq said.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were alerted and the flight crew was questioned, “Have you seen an Arabic looking family on the plane?” Sadiq said.
One of the flight attendants confirmed the family was on the plane.
Eventually the family was found inside the airport and they were greeted with tearful hugs. It turned out the family thought the welcoming group was going to meet them inside the airport and the welcoming group thought they would be waiting outside on the curb.
The family was overjoyed to see fellow Middle Eastern Muslims who could speak the family’s language and provide assurances to the family who had journeyed from a war-torn land.
Shortly after arrival, the family was invited to the Fairfield Road mosque to ‘break fast.” During Ramadan, the faithful fast from dawn until dusk and spend time in prayer and doing charitable acts.
The collaboration, which continues today, serves as sharp contrast to racial and religious tensions, here and abroad, and continuing debate about the resettlement of refugees. President Trump issued a controversial executive order in January that barred refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria.
In 2015, then-Gov. Nikki Haley asked federal authorities not to resettle any more Syrian refugees in the state until better vetting was in place. The Syrian family McGregor sponsored had no additional process to go through in 2016 upon arrival and were allowed in with no issues.
Sadiq, in a telephone interview, said his mosque worked with the non-profit Interfaith Partners because the mosque’s mission is to enlighten society about Islam.
Bird said there were skeptics in her congregation who were opposed to sponsoring a refugee family. But when the decision had been made and need of this family realized, the most vocal of the opposition had a change of heart.
“I will say that one of the folks who was quick in verbalizing his disagreement (in sponsoring the family) was also one of the first people to bring in a bag of donations and that said a lot to me,” said Bird.
Members of McGregor were also invited at times to share the breaking of the fast with the mosque.
Christianity and Islam share ancient roots; both are monotheistic and believe that God revealed himself through their joint patriarch Abraham.
Jesus is the central figure in Christianity and the Bible its main teaching, while Muslims hold the Quran to be its sacred text as revealed through the prophet Muhammed. The religions share beliefs such as encouraging good deeds, taking care of the homeless, giving to the poor and having a great deal of love towards all humanity.
“Islam is a very peaceful religion and it's interconnected with both Judaism and Christianity. We're sister religions,” said Ginger Barfield, executive director of the Academy of Faith and Leadership at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary on Columbia.
“Unless you read the Quran, or taught then you don't know what the truth is and what's not,” Barfield said.
Barfield explained that this collaboration isn’t that uncommon especially with the Lutheran Seminary and its partners. She said she believes citizens in South Carolina, many of whom identify as Christian, are interested in learning about other faiths.
“Every year we have lectures on ‘Who are Muslims?’ and we invite local sheiks to come in and those are some of the highest attended events,” said Barfield.
But she acknowledged there remains opposition to resettling of refugees from Muslim countries.
As the congregations continued to work together over the course of several months and as the Syrian family grew more independent, members from both faiths wanted to see more of each other.
In celebration of their blooming friendship both sides talked about getting together.
“And rather than trying to teach each other anything or have a program we just wanted to share a meal together,” Bird said.
The event, called “The Meeting of Two Faiths,” was held Jan. 22 at the McGregor fellowship hall.
Around 90 to 100 people showed up with dishes to share from soups, rice dishes, hummus and even pizza, most of which were vegetarian.
McGregor continued its welcome to refugees, sponsoring an individual from Iraq as well as a family from Burma. The Burmese family has continued to befriend the McGregor church and even holds their own worship services Sunday evening in McGregors’ sanctuary.
Bird and Sadiq are scheduled to meet with Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia to discuss future events in the city, all focusing on improving interfaith connections locally.
“People want to know from Muslims who Muslims are,” said Barfield.