A few weeks back I received an invitation from the seventh grade class to accompany them on a field trip to Greensboro, to visit the International Civil Rights Center, and also a mosque. Well who doesn’t like to go on a field trip? We all piled into a bus on Monday morning. We arrived a little late due to traffic, but even still spent a mesmerizing hour and a half or so at the Civil Rights Center, which is located on Elm Street in downtown Greensboro at the site of the former Woolworth department store.
We got a tour of Civil Rights history in the South, with powerful images of the major figures of the Civil Rights era, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in a heartbreaking image on a screen, a black girl on her first day of school in the first grade being heckled and taunted by whites as she entered school. Our tour ended at the site of the actual lunch counter where four black college students took a seat at the counter and asked for a cup of coffee, were denied service, and then refused to leave. Their peaceful witness to social change eventually led to the desegregation of lunch counters all through the South.
We left the Civil Rights Center and then drove to the Islamic Center of Greensboro. This is the third year in a row that the seventh grade class has visited this mosque. The Muslim community there welcomed us and talked about their faith. They invited us to stay for their prayer – in the early afternoon, they all fell to their knees, faced the east, and chanted their prayers to God. They also prepared a lunch for us.
There is, in the Franciscan tradition, an openness to the Muslim faith that goes all the way back to St. Francis of Assisi himself. The story is told that Francis, during the Crusades, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and landed by the coastal city of Damietta in Egypt. At the time, Muslims and Christians were engaged in battle there. Francis, as the story is told, marched through the battle lines, a poor and humble figure in only his tattered robe, and asked to meet with the sultan. He was laughed at, but nevertheless he was brought to see the sultan.
The story is told that Francis and the sultan met in the sultan’s palace and spoke to each other of their own faith, and of peace. At the end of their meeting, Francis was escorted out through the battle lines. The Christians and Muslims continued their battle, but 800 years later the story of Francis and his engagement with the sultan has been passed down through the centuries. In the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, you can even find the gift that the sultan gave to Francis, a horn that was used for the call to prayer. Francis from then on spoke with respect and admiration for the daily Muslim attention to prayer.
I think it’s great that our seventh graders got the chance to visit both the Civil Rights Center, which illustrates an important and often painful part of our history, and also the mosque. We live in a world that is filled with much tension and anxiety and fear. Our beloved Pope Francis has spoken about creating a culture of encounter, in which we meet each other and have opportunities to hear each other’s stories. That was very much the way of St. Francis as well, as he lived and moved among those considered to be on the margins – whether they be people of other faiths, or the lepers who lived in colonies on the far outskirts of town. And it remains as well our own call, as a Franciscan community here in North Raleigh – in what ways are we called to be followers of Francis, who himself followed Jesus, and be men and women of grace and reconciliation in an often wounded world?
Blessings on your week!