Some folks may be stunned to learn that a Baptist church in North Carolina has invited a Muslim to preach from its pulpit this Sunday morning in Charlotte.
It turns out the guest preacher is stunned, too.
Imam Ronald Shaheed said it is surprising and ironic that he was invited to deliver the Dec. 3 sermon at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte — on the first Sunday of Advent, no less.
“I think ‘cool’ is a good word, too,” he said.
Unusual and historic may also be appropriate since neither Shaheed nor Myers Park Pastor Ben Boswell could personally recall hearing about a Muslim preaching the regular worship service at a church, much less a Baptist church.
“I have warned some of our key leaders that this could raise some eyebrows,” Boswell said.
But the idea seemed a natural one for the congregation, given its 2017 preaching and formational theme titled “Awakening to Immigration.”
Out of that came an Advent series called “Welcoming the Stranger.”
It’s to be kicked off this Sunday with an interfaith forum during the church’s faith formation hour before 11 a.m. worship. Rasheed and a rabbi will join Christian voices in a discussion about immigrants and others which sometimes are collectively described by the biblical term, “the stranger.”
“We invited them to discuss how each of our traditions talk about ‘the stranger’ in our obligations toward them,” Boswell said.
During planning for the event, Boswell said it occurred to him there could scarcely be a better way to “welcome the stranger” than to have a Muslim preach during worship.
It would be hard to imagine a religious group more harshly judged and feared than Muslims, he said. “It’s really easy to scapegoat the Muslims community right now.”
That makes Rasheed’s participation crucial to erasing the misunderstandings and stereotypes many Americans have about his faith tradition. And it’s a perfectly timed hospitality lesson for Advent.
“This enables us to hear a message from another tradition as we are trying to imagine welcoming God the stranger in our setting,” he said. “Hospitality for me right now means we have to be prepared to listen to the other.”
That’s something Myers Park members are accustomed to, he said. The church historically has been a leader in interfaith efforts around the city and has regularly hosted Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and other faiths for dialogue. Rabbis have preached but never an imam.
“That’s going an extra step,” Boswell said.
The mosque which Shaheed serves — Masjid Ash-Shaheed — shares in that interfaith history.
“It is one of the most prominent Muslim communities in Charlotte and it has been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue,” Shaheed said.
Connecting with people of other faiths also has been a benchmark of Shaheed’s career. He’s participated in local, state and national efforts and has visited the Vatican multiple times to participate in interfaith meetings.
And while he recently retired as the lead imam at a mosque in Wisconsin and is newly arrived in Charlotte, he is continuing active participation in interfaith relations.
“When people of faith from different traditions come together … the spirit will show up and build unit.,”
Still, Rasheed said he never envisioned being invited to preach the sermon in a formal Christian worship setting.
The added irony for Rasheed is that he grew up in a Missionary Baptist church in Northwest Florida. He was raised by grandparents who practically lived at the church.
Which meant he also practically lived at church.
“Anytime the church doors were open, I was there,” he said.
But he heard the call of Islam in the 1970s and went on to serve Muslim communities across the Midwest for decades.
He said it’s amazing that his life is coming full circle when he preaches at a Baptist church Sunday morning.
“I think it’s ironic, too, that this is my upbringing in terms of being Baptist in a Southern town,” he said.
But he also sees his sermon as an opportunity to share with Christians the value Islam places on helping the other.
Rasheed’s sermon is titled “Giving Refuge to the Child of the Road,” which is a Muslim reference to the wayfarer or stranger.
Rasheed said he will try to convey that Islam at its core is about advancing human civilization through religious tolerance.
Boswell said he hopes Rasheed’s message will be spiritually transforming.
“When people of faith from different traditions come together … the spirit will show up and build unity,” he said.