Montevideo opens interfaith dialogue
MONTEVIDEO — It was in Montevideo that Dr. Ayaz Virji first ventured outside of Dawson to speak about Islam.
Some in the audience at the Chippewa County-Montevideo Library called the local physician an antichrist. His experiences of speaking about his faith in the area was told in a Washington Post news story that captured national attention.
Almost exactly one year after he first spoke in Montevideo, Dr. Virji's experience and the expected arrival of another speaker to town brought more than 100 people to the Montevideo Community Center on Wednesday evening. Their goal was to launch an ongoing, interfaith dialogue in the community.
"A speaker is coming to our community whose main goal is to spread the word that Islam and Muslims are all bad and that interfaith dialogue is a big trick to infiltrate and undo the other religions, particularly Christianity in the United States," said Audrey Arner in welcoming the crowd that filled the Community Center.
"Our response tonight is to create a wholesome, interfaith dialogue to promote unity over further division, and understanding over hate," she said.
She was referencing the anti-Muslim preacher Shahram Hadian, who spoke Thursday night in Montevideo. He is the founder of the TIL Project Ministry and often speaks about his concerns about Islam.
John Emery, a U.S. Army veteran, practicing Muslim and speaker for the Islamic Resources Group, took on the role that Virji accepted one year ago in explaining his faith. "It's always love and service,'' said Emery in emphasizing that Christians and Muslims alike seek those very same goals.
Emery was joined by a panel that included the Rev. Fern Cloud, pastor of the Pejuhutazizi Presbyterian Church at the Upper Sioux Community; Mike Jacobs, of rural Milan and of the Jewish faith; the Rev. Jeff Fitzkappes, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Montevideo; and Massoud Kazemzadeh, co-owner of Kay's Naturals in Clara City and a member of the Baha'i Faith and originally of Iran.
Audience members met in small groups and drafted questions for the panelists and afterward rejoined to discuss what they learned. Questions ranged from "how does jihad fit with the idea that we are all to do good deeds together" to "what are the limits of tolerance."
The word "jihad" has been misappropriated, weaponized and taken out of its cultural context in the west, according to Emery. True jihad speaks to the internal struggle to do right, "to better ourselves and to be a more loving people,'' he said.
Mike Jacobs said most of his family was murdered in Europe due to intolerance 70 years ago. "My parents didn't teach me that Christians were bad. My parents taught me that Nazis were bad and that intolerance was bad."
Participants offered a wide range of thoughts, with the majority supporting efforts to keep an open dialogue. Some spoke to the challenges as well.
"We're trying to understand how do we work together, knowing that our faiths may be different, and believe and be solid on our faith and stand on that ground,'' said the Rev. Cody Mills, Hazel Run Lutheran Church, of the conversation at his table.
Sponsors of the event said they will continue the conversation. A newly formed Chippewa County Civil Conversations Project will be launched at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Community Center, according to Amy Bacigalupo, one of the organizers. She said there is also a book club devoted to promoting conversations about race and faith in the community, and an upcoming series of "potluck, prayers and pie'' events at local churches aimed at fostering discussion and understanding.