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'My Neighbor is Muslim': Small groups on Iron Range hope to go beyond stereotypes

The Rev. Kristin Foster told this one on herself.

Foster, the pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Mountain Iron for 27 years, was attending a regional gathering of Lutheran churches earlier this year when someone offered a resolution calling on churches in Northeastern Minnesota to have a dialogue with their Muslim neighbors.

Foster rose to her feet.

"I stood up and said: That's a really good idea, except we live in Northeastern Minnesota in small towns," she recalled. "With the exception of Duluth, we probably don't have Muslim neighbors."

Later that day she was back at Messiah Lutheran, which was hosting a community forum on race and diversity called "Fifty Shades on the Range."

She found herself sitting at a table with two women — nursing students at Hibbing Community College — and a child.

All were Muslim.

"It was so ironic," Foster said. "It was the universe coming back to me and saying: You just need to open your eyes."

Now Foster is one of the leaders of a series of small-group discussions beginning next week in three Iron Range churches and a restaurant with the topic: "My Neighbor is Muslim."

The seven sessions, written by a professor from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, are timely in the light of stereotypes engendered by terrorist groups such as ISIS, Foster said, and the political rhetoric of an election season.

"For people who haven't had the opportunity to know Muslim neighbors ... it's easy to draw terrible conclusions, and people are prone to stereotyping, scapegoating and exclusion," she said.

The studies focus on issues such as "What are the five pillars of Islam?" and "What does the Quran say about Jesus?" In addition to the study led by Foster at Messiah Lutheran, the studies will take place at Hope Community Presbyterian Church, Gethsemane Lutheran Church and Adventures Restaurant & Pub, all in Virginia.

The groups already exist but are opening their doors to anyone in the community interested in the topic, Foster said. The studies in the churches are being led by their pastors; the group in the restaurant is led by Dean Johnson, a Messiah Lutheran member who attended seminary and is a lifelong student of Christian documents, Christian theology and comparative religions.

Johnson started what he calls the beverage and book study group a year ago, he said, setting the meetings at 6 p.m. on Sunday so people with normal work schedules could attend and holding it in a restaurant and bar "so that it could have a socially mutually supportive aspect to it."

Johnson's group will start the "My Neighbor" studies on Sunday. He said he hopes anyone who is interested will come, whether they are members of a church or not.

"I hope ... they will come away with an understanding of the similarities between the three great Western religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — as well as some of the contrasts," he said.

Foster said she'd be thrilled if the studies draw 50 participants among them. Although there's no limit on the number of participants, "we did say small group for a reason," she said. "We want to really provide people the freedom and mutual trust to have good discussions."

The studies don't claim that the religions are the same, she said, but seek to "get beneath stereotypes and vocabulary and look at the core teachings in Islam."

The church is the right place to do that, Foster said. "I believe that churches need to be places where people learn to talk about difficult issues."

IF YOU GO

"My Neighbor is Muslim" was created by Lutheran Social Service and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The seven-session series will be offered at the following places:

  • Hope Community Presbyterian Church, 212 S. Fifth Ave., Virginia, noon on Tuesdays beginning Sept. 13; led by the Rev. Mary Pol.
  • Gethsemane Lutheran Church, 901 Fourth St. S., Virginia, 10:15 a.m. on Wednesdays beginning Sept. 14; led by the Rev. Nathan Sager.
  • Messiah Lutheran Church, 8590 Enterprise Drive, Mountain Iron, noon on Wednesdays beginning Sept. 14; led by the Rev. Kristin Foster.
  • Adventures Restaurant & Pub, 5475 Mountain Iron Drive, Virginia, 6 p.m. on Sundays beginning Sept. 18.

Each group is free and open to the community; donations may be made to cover the cost of the study booklet. For more information, call Gethsemane Lutheran Church, (218) 741-4961; Hope Community Presbyterian Church, (218) 741-7336; or Messiah Lutheran Church, (218) 741-7057.

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