Stories from CUIR: Praying Beyond My Familiar Christian Way

February 13, 2020

By the Rev. Becky Goodwin, pastor at Grass Valley UMC

We all know that interfaith friendships are priceless, and many of us have enjoyed being part of interfaith events. However, I want to make the case for participation in the regular prayer and worship services of non-Christian traditions. What happens if you show up at the regular service of a non-Christian religion?

I will tell two stories about how attending Muslim and Jewish services have strengthened my own faith while enriching my interfaith friendships.

In Madera, California, when I was pastor at Madera UMC, I happened to meet some of the local Muslims at an interfaith/intercultural fair. I sampled some snacks, and admired some pictures and artifacts on their table and struck up a conversation. I asked, rather shyly, if I might attend a regular weekly prayer service.

The response was incredibly friendly! They almost jumped for joy! “Of course!” they said. And then I said that I knew how to dress, but what else should I expect?

They said the women would look for me, offer me a scarf, and show me where to leave my shoes. They said come a few minutes before 1 pm on Friday.

So that Friday, I dressed modestly in a long skirt over black tights, a long sleeved shirt, and slip-on black shoes. I drove over to the Islamic Cultural Center, a lovely place that had once been a retail store, but had been remodeled in recent years to be authentic to Islamic tradition, and which was fenced and gated for security. I noted with a heavy heart that it was probably a good idea that it was fortified, and I also couldn’t miss the armed security guards (a hired service, not soldiers) at the gate, but they did not seem worried about me. They nodded politely and I drove in and parked.

Sure enough, it wasn’t hard to identify the women’s entrance, and a group of women eagerly met me, as if I were the most important visitor ever! I slipped my shoes off and set them on the shelf for that purpose, and a woman dressed my head properly in a scarf. I was escorted into the carpeted room, and introduced to the woman milling around. Everyone was greeting each other, and chatting informally, just like any of our churches before worship begins.

Through a screen we could see the men on the other side, and the leaders sat at a booth with a microphone on the men’s side. The service was all in English, and the procedure not hard to understand. I just did the same as the women around me. The sermon was most interesting and relevant to my life!

Afterwards the women and I in the shoe room had a wonderful chat about the service. I said I had experienced some inspiration from the sermon and that I had a good time with them sharing the love of Allah. Unfortunately, I told them, I was about to move to Grass Valley, but I would remember them fondly. And I do!

In Grass Valley, I have not found Muslim people. But through the Interfaith Nevada County group, I met Jewish people. I invited myself to Shabbat service and they said, like the Muslims in Madera, “Of course!”

In the past, I had been friends with Jewish people in Gilroy and attended Shabbat, Purim and Passover events. So I had some idea what to expect at Shabbat. It was akin to what I experience in Benedictine prayer hours: lots of psalms, and an order of prayer flowing through a book.

I am now a regular in this Shabbat. They are no longer surprised to see me. I love the rabbi’s sermons, and I enjoy the fellowship after the service with challah bread, wine and snacks.

I have been struck by how welcoming these Muslim and Jewish people have been to me in my little efforts to join them in prayer on their terms, in their way. I experienced God’s love in these services among these people.

I would recommend such visits to anyone, and I advise getting a little information beforehand. Find out how formal or informal the attire, etc. My questions have been answered with warm respect.

I will dare to say that prayer with these others has not only built bridges of interfaith friendship, but also strengthened my love for Christ. Joining humbly in the traditions of others is peace-making at its best!