‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me’: Matthew 25:35
The beautiful Islamic call to prayer echoed through the hall of St Thomas Uniting Church in Craigieburn, in the north of Melbourne, as Muslims from the Australian Intercultural Society (AIS) at sunset on 8 June to break their fast for Ramadan joined by their Christian brothers and sisters.
Rev Peter Weeks and members of his congregation hosted the evening of food and fellowship with support from the assembly of the Uniting Church and the synod’s ‘Uniting through Faiths’ project. Associate general secretary of the Vic/Tas Synod, Isabel Thomas Dobson attended the evening.
Bringing two ‘peoples of the book’ together in a holy place at this auspicious time in Ramadan is meaningful in many ways. It is about the faithful building of personal relationships which can work to transcend the noise and violence of our modern world which often tears us apart.
Omer Atilla Ergi from AIS called for a respectful minute’s silence to pay respect to all who have died in the continuing violence in the Middle East, in England, Europe and elsewhere. Mr Weeks echoed these sentiments and called for deeper listening and learning about each other to help break down the walls between us.
Prayer rooms were set up for the guests with water and the traditional dates were set on each table. As the first food was consumed, the discussions started in earnest.
The meal opened with the words of UCA president Stuart McMillan who had written to support this Iftar as well as others being held in Sydney and Brisbane. He said:
“The sharing of the Iftar meal between Muslims and Christians has become a powerful symbol of love for neighbour.”
Omer explained that Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Calendar and a time of fasting for all Muslims to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). During this month of Ramadan Muslims will fast from dawn until dusk – complete abstention from food and drink and intimate intercourse.
It is also a time when Muslims focus inwardly and on their relation to God. It is a particularly prayerful time, with prayers five times each day meticulously observed. Ramadan is a time of moral cleansing and spiritual growth.
Fasting is also a means of creating empathy with poorer members of society by experiencing what it feels like to go hungry each day. During Ramadan there is an expectation that Muslims should share their wealth with the poor through alms-giving called zakat.
Mr Weeks and the St Thomas church community provided a warm welcome to their Muslim guests, even as AIS friends continued to arrive through the evening, near doubling the expected numbers. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre catered for the dinner and the apple pies were home made by St Thomas parishioners.
There were many calls from those gathered for more of these interfaith opportunities for deepening our dialogue and our friendship. St Thomas church council chairperson Ray Benson was ebullient: “What a positive night, with loads of smiles and goodwill. We certainly are a vibrant community in today’s society with some important stories to tell.”
Larry Marshall is a project manager with Uniting Through Faiths.