Summer seminar aims to strengthen interfaith relationships

Published: Jul. 5, 2017 at 8:38 AM CDT
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In the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary; a theological discussion about Muslim culture. Every year at the beginning of July, AGTS's Center for Islamic Studies hosts a summer institute to encourage building stronger relationships with people of different backgrounds.

The Center for Islamic Studies started about five years ago, in response to the rising population of Muslims in United States. Dr. Mark Hausfeld, Professor of Urban and Islamic Studies, says that after September 11, 2001, there are a lot of strong attitudes towards the Muslim faith and culture.

"Usually with baby boomers and older, it's more of a fear and an anger," Dr. Hausfeld said. "With millennials, it's more of an indifference. So at the Center for Islamic Studies, what we do is to help people get over that fear to really de-mystify Muslim peoples and to help people understand their religion so that they can take away those unknowns."

The annual summer institute has a similar goal. Through various seminars of varying topics, attendees can learn about Muslim history and culture and begin to better understand Muslim people.

Dr. Hausfeld said that typically, about 75% of Muslim people who emigrate to the United States do so to pursue education, work or to be with family. The other 25% are pushed to our country due to war, famine, disease or a refugee crisis in their own countries.

"Muslim neighbors are not people to fear, but they're really people to engage," Dr. Hausfeld said. "And that's the ultimate goal of what we're all about, whether that Muslim is here in Springfield, Missouri or whether they are in Singapore or some other part of the world."

Fred Farrokh, International Trainer with Global Initiative Reaching Muslim Peoples, grew up Muslim, but converted to Christianity around the time he went to college. This year, Farrokh presented a seminar based on Shia Islam, the smaller "denomination", so to say, of Islam.

Farrokh said that it is impossible to understand what's going on today in regions like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan without understanding the history of the religion and its people.

"You'd much better understand the world if you just understood that history up until about the year 1700 and you never watched any of the modern contemporary news," Farrokh said. "If you just understand that history, it is far easier to understand what's going on in the world in terms of wars, tensions and so forth, because it's all set up in those early years."

Mary Beth Thoms is a pastor at a church in St. Louis, working in training people in church in cross-cultural relationships. She drove to Springfield to take Farrokh's seminar.

Thoms said she has seen firsthand in her church the difference that education and open-mindedness can have.

"We have a lot of misunderstanding about others, so it gives us fear that we don't need or even judgments that aren't correct," she said. "So as we learn, we realize some of the barriers that we put up that we don't need to have."

Dr. Hausfeld agrees. He says the more one can understand what Muslim people believe in religion, then get to know them culturally, the easier it is to begin to relate and build relationships with them

"They begin to have a greater understanding of what Islam is all about as a religion," he said. "What's the truth from what perhaps is perceived to be the truth. And then about Muslim people. What are Muslim people really like? How I can relate to them with their cultural uniqueness so I don't offend them? So I can better relate to them and call them my neighbor."

Many of the seminar attendees are preparing to work overseas, or work in a church or business. However, anyone is welcome to attend the institute as a seminar, or as a bachelor's, master's or doctoral-level class.

For more information on the seminar, click the link in the "related links" box on this page.