Dearborn mosque interfaith event helps ‘build a bridge’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Standing beneath a welcome sign in German at the Islamic Center of America on Monday night, Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly told about two dozen foreigners how immigrants shaped his city.

In the decades after the auto industry drew workers from across the globe, the Detroit suburb also attracted notably diverse newcomers — so much so, O’Reilly recalls hearing mothers speaking multiple languages on their doorsteps to call their children back home after playing nearby.

“We ended up being a mixture of everybody,” he said. “That’s how we became exposed to everybody.”

That integration focused much of an interfaith session Monday at the mosque, which hosted German Christians in Michigan this month to visit an Alpena church with whom their congregation has maintained a longstanding “exchange” program.

First Congregational United Church of Christ has long had ties to ICA stretching back to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since Alpena lacks a significant Muslim or immigrant population, and Germany has agreed to house hundreds of thousands amid ongoing warfare in the Middle East, church leaders wanted to take their foreign companions to a diverse city to glimpse how an influx can affect its residents over time.

“We thought: ‘Come to Dearborn and see how our communities are integrated,’ ” said the Rev. Paul Lance, minister at the church, which also had about a dozen members visiting. “Arab and Muslim culture are simply part of the culture.”

The German guests were from Gelsenkirchen, a city in the North Rhine-Westphalia that already had Arab residents drawn to the industrial opportunities there, Lance said. But as their nation welcomes more Middle East immigrants, “they’re trying to come to grips with people coming into the schools and city,” he said.

Europe has been struggling with what some call a refugee crisis as more than a million migrants and refugees entered the continent last year, compared to 280,000 in 2014.

Riots have involved Muslim refugees and opposition groups. Police in Germany, Austria, Finland, Switzerland and Sweden have warned women to avoid going out at night, after sexual assaults by Arab and North African refugees. In the wake of attacks in Belgium and France, concerns also linger about Middle Eastern refugees and possible ties to religious extremists.

As their city deals with thousands more immigrants arriving this year alone while also facing high unemployment, the German visitors acknowledged that issues can arise. “The situation is very difficult,” educator Gudrun Leimann said.

During a Q&A session in the mosque sanctuary, the Germans and Alpena residents asked Eide Alawan, its interfaith outreach officer, about how Metro Detroit immigrants live, learn and interact with the community.

When one asked about how local Muslims view extremism abroad, Alawan said terrorists represent a tiny percentage of followers and defy the holy Quran, which stresses that “if you kill one human being, you are responsible for all mankind.”

The session was key in helping shift misconceptions, said Maya Mortada, a pediatric nurse practitioner from Dearborn. “If you get to know one Muslim who’s making a difference in the community, then hopefully you can be open to seeing other Muslims and who they are and what their story is.”

Later, as attendees dined on chicken and rice dishes at circular tables, Imam Steve Mustapha Elturk urged them to reject negative or inaccurate portrayals of local Muslims.

“We are one community and a loving community,” said the imam, who is active with the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

That reinforced what teacher and First Congregational member Priscilla Homola told others in Alpena who asked if she feared stepping into Metro Detroit mosque.

“I said ‘No — these are good people,’ ” she recalled while wearing a head covering out of respect for her hosts.

Monday’s mosque visit was another positive experience for Marcia Aten, a retired social worker and church member. “We felt incredibly welcome,” she said. “People could not have been more gracious.”

The Muslims and Christians lingered for a while after the dinner — chatting amiably, even embracing and thanking each other for the experience.

“This is very important for us to meet people from different faiths and really to feel in our heart that we are a big community,” said Henning Disselhoff, a minister at the German church. “We have to live together and we have to find the point that puts us together. … This is a chance to build a bridge.”