WILLMAR — While there are unarguably many differences between Christianity and Islam, the overarching message of the interfaith dialogue last week Willmar was there is more common ground than one might expect and the differences should not keep people apart.
"It is OK to be friends and neighbors with people that are different than you," said the Rev. Mandy France, pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Bird Island. "It is OK to be in a relationship with people who don't believe what you believe."
France and Dr. Ayaz Virji, of Dawson, conducted their 26th "Love Thy Neighbor" event Dec. 20 in front of a crowd of about 100 people at the Barn Theatre in Willmar. Virji and France have for a couple of years now been giving these talks, based on Virji's book "Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor's Struggle for Home in Rural America."
The duo started them following the 2016 election, when Virji and his family started to experience a significant rise in Islamophobia in their home of Dawson, where Virji is a family practice physician.
"After the election, things did change, for whatever reason," Virji said.
At the start of the Willmar presentation, they made sure to let people know they had no other agenda beyond starting a conversation.
"We are not here to argue or debate anyone. We are not hear to convert anyone," France said. "The religion or whatever you walked in with, you are going to walk out with."
During the two-hour presentation, France and Virji shared their stories about how they came together to give these presentations across the country. Virji shared information about Islam, and the two questioned each other about their respective religions. There was also a short question-and-answer segment with the audience toward the end.
Virji and his family had moved to Dawson in 2013, when Virji felt a calling to practice medicine in rural America, where there is a shortage of physicians. The treatment his family was receiving following the election made him start to rethink that mission. His family, including his young children, were called suicide bombers and terrorists to their faces, and Virji regularly receives hate mail.
"This is nonsense," Virji said and he was thinking of leaving it all behind. While he accepted a position with New York University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Virji continues to live and work in Dawson for part of the year.
France, who in 2016 was an intern pastor, talked Virji into giving a presentation about Islam in Dawson, to teach people and show them there is nothing to fear.
"The message of the Bible is love. It was really conflicting to me," France said of the treatment she witnessed Virji and his family receiving and the comments she heard from people who identify as Christian.
For Virji, Islam is a religion of peace and love and it's just as much about good deeds as belief.
"Faith is a verb, you have to do it," Virji said.
He wishes people wouldn't judge his religion and the vast majority of its followers by the horrible actions of extremists. There are just as many different types of Muslims as there are Christians.
"Don't use the .1 percent as my spokesperson," Virji said.
Virji said the Islamic terrorists are losers and cowards and are no different than Christian terrorists. He said comparing Islam with the extremists would be like Muslims using the violence white supremacist organization Ku Klux Klan to learn about Christianity.
"That would be a lie. Christianity is a religion of love," Virji said.
He also pointed out, by reading several verses from both the Bible and the Koran, that there are violent and bloody rhetoric in both, and when taken out of context, it can make it look like the entire religion is hateful and vengeful.
"We can compare dirty laundry all day, but where does that get us?" Virji asked.
Virji admits he is not a scholar, that he speaks only of what he personally believes and from his own study of Islam and other religions. He does ask those wanting to learn more to reach out to mainstream scholars, who have studied the religion their entire lives, not from cable news.
"Cable news is there to divide us," Virji said. "They make a lot of money doing that."
When asking each other questions about their respective religions, the two covered a lot of theological ground, from the crucifixion and sharia law, to the concept of heaven and hell, original sin and whether there is more than one path to become closer to God. There were, of course, differences of belief and opinion, but that doesn't stop Virji and France from being close friends.
The majority of the questions and comments from the audience focused on how the different communities could come together and help push back against extremism and fear of the other. They were very supportive and spoke of getting to know each other and learning from each other, which Virji agreed with.
"When you humanize the other, when you learn about the other, it makes it very difficult to hate the other," Virji said.
Virji said he had wished more of Willmar's Islamic community had attended the presentation to assist with that.
"Muslims need to do this too," Virji said. "They also have a responsibility to reach out to others and learn about them too."
The closing comment of the evening came not from France or Virji, but Willmar resident Hamdi Kosar, a community organizer and Somali Muslim. She urged both sides to start talking with each other rather than making the decision not to ask questions.
"Maybe it is time, both ends, the Muslim community and the Christian community, to get out of our comfort zone, to ask questions rather than assuming," Kosar said. "So far we have been assuming and those assumptions have been dividing us."