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Menlo Park church embarks on journey to better understand Islam

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From left: Maryam Amir with her son Zachariah, MCA board member Lubna Shaikh, Lynn O’Leary Pieron (Trinity parishioner) and Tarek Mourad walk through the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara on Oct. 27, 2017. Photo by Michelle Le

By Linda Hubbard of Menlo Park, a longtime member of Trinity Church in Menlo Park.

A Christian church exploring Islam? That's the goal of Trinity Church in Menlo Park as the congregation starts a year-long exploration called "Embracing Our Muslim Neighbors," an effort that includes guest speakers, books clubs, and an annual Hearts for Justice conference, devoted to multi-faith understanding.

"The focus on Islam emerged from the congregation's interest in interfaith work," said the Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett, rector of the Episcopal church. "In general, religion has become more a marker of difference and used more and more by various forces in society as a way to divide people.

"A lot of people at Trinity believe that's not what religion is about. It's about connecting people rather than dividing people. That led us to explore how we as a Christian community can have meaningful relationships with other people of faith, how we can both be committed to our own paths but open to the truths people have on differing paths."

Portola Valley resident Lynn Pieron, a Trinity parishioner since 1990, was part of a seven-member committee that worked to formulate the multiple aspects of the exploration. They began by educating themselves about Islam, which included not only reading but visiting nearby mosques and attending a three-part speaker series on the subject hosted by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.

"Personally, I was struck by the dissonance between what I read about Islam and how it is portrayed in the media, which tends to align with the ISIS view of the world that sets up a narrative that says we are in a war of civilizations," Ms. Pieron said. "As people of faith, we need to equip our community with a counter narrative."

She and her fellow committee members discovered that Congregation Beth AM in Los Altos was already doing outreach to the Muslim community.

Concurrently, this year's Heart for Justice half-day conference, titled "Toward Understanding: A Jewish, Christian, Muslim Conversation," was being planned by Trinity's clergy.

The free event, scheduled for Nov. 5 from 2 to 4 p.m., will feature a panel consisting of Mr. Dutton-Gillett, the Trinity rector; Rabbi Sarah Weissman, associate rabbi at Beth AM; and Sheikha Maryam Amir, an instructor at Hikmah Institute.

Click here to register. Advance registration is appreciated.

"The religion that gets spotlighted as different and dangerous is Islam," Mr. Dutton-Gillett said. "As a congregation, we want to go beyond those stereotypes, to challenge them and demystify the Islamic faith. Hearts for Justice takes that work out into the broader community."

Both Ms. Pieron and Mr. Dutton-Gillett discovered that planning the year-long program impacted their own faith journey.

"I've always been a seeker and initially was a Quaker," Ms. Pieron said. "At Trinity, I've found a fellowship of fellow seekers. As we explored Islam, I became more aware and appreciative of other people's faith journeys and found myself happy to have the company!

"Personally, I don't know many Muslims. That will be our next challenge: to figure out how to build relationships with people who are Muslims, eventually joining together in service activities."

Only valid religion?

Mr. Dutton-Gillett explained that he's never believed that Christianity is the only valid religion. But upon arriving in Menlo Park in 2009, he was surprised that in the broader community, he found himself surrounded by a story that depicts Christianity as a religious tradition that is closed off, portrayed as the one truth in regard to other faith traditions, characterized more by what Christians are against than what they are for.

"From my experience as a Christian, it is much more nuanced and sophisticated than that narrative," he said. "Plenty of Christians are open-minded and open-hearted and display an open attitude.

"There might be some people who would wonder why a Christian church would devote so much time to exploring another religious tradition. But to me, it's a natural extension of our vision.

"My hope is that people can feel they then can experience Christianity more openly, more compassionately and with more curiosity. I think Trinity embodies that in all the things we try to do."

About Trinity Church

Organized in the late 1880s, Trinity Church is the fourth oldest church in Menlo Park. Its earliest members were like a "who's who" of distinguished men of that era, including Civil War hero Edward Eyre, Leland Stanford, Edward Hopkins, C.N. Felton and Percy Selby.

In 1886 a "simple redwood building of approximately 27 by 48 feet" was erected on Encinal Avenue in Menlo Park, the first church building of what was then called Holy Trinity Church (Episcopal).

It was to have two more locations transported to a lot on Oak Grove Avenue near Laurel Street in 1897 (the moving cost $1,200!) and then to Pine Street in 1947 as part of Trinity's larger campus on land the parish had purchased at the corner of Ravenswood Avenue and Laurel Street in 1902.

Today that original church building, now on Crane Street, is home to a Russian Orthodox congregation, the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church, which started services in 1951 when the church building was still on Pine Street.

The author, Linda Hubbard, grew up attending Trinity Church in Menlo Park and has served on its vestry, the governing body of the church.


More information

Below is more information about Trinity Church in Menlo Park and its year-long venture called "Embracing Our Muslim Neighbors." There is information about suggested reading; a half-day, multi-faith conference on Sunday, Nov. 5; a speaker series; winter adult classes; and a Trinity Church web page on "Interfaith Harmony."

Suggested reading

• For adults: "The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew Three Women Search for Understanding," by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner.

• For youth age 10+: "Growing up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam," by Sumbul Ali-Karamali.


Panel discussion and interfaith community resource fair, Sunday, Nov. 5, from 2 to 4 p.m., "Toward Understanding: A Jewish, Christian, Muslim Conversation." Attendance is free; advance registration is appreciated. Click here to register.

Speaker series

• Sunday, Nov. 12, at 11:30 a.m.: Talk and children's program, "Jihad and Pluralism in Islam" by Sumbul Ali-Karamali, JD, LLM (Islamic Law). Sumbul is author of "The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing" (Bronze Medal Winner of the 2009 Independent Publisher's Awards) and "Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam." The children’s interfaith program will use the World Peace Village, an interactive exhibit that explains the six faith traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Native American, Islam and Jewish.

• Sunday, Nov. 19, at 11:30 a.m.: Talk and children's program, "Muslim Women Beyond the Stereotypes" by Maha Elgenaidi, executive director, Islamic Networks Group. The children's program will include an introduction to Islam and Muslims.

Winter adult classes

• "Discover Islam," four-class series (Mondays at 7 p.m. and Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.) with Tarek Mourad, instructor at the Muslim Community Association. Jan. 8 and 10: "Islamic Beliefs and Practices"; Jan. 22 and 24: "The Life of the Prophet"; Jan. 29 and 31: "The Qur'an"; Feb. 5 and 7: "Concepts of Social Justice in Islam."

Click here for more information from the Trinity Church website.


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