Muslims In West Virginia?

In Lebanon this summer, we met three people that stood out to us among the rest. A retired pastor/professor, a nurse, and a university student from Huntington, West Virginia. They were there for one reason in particular, they wanted to learn how to serve the Arab communities near them better. 

We recently had an opportunity to catch up with university student, Eli Bone. Last month, he partnered with the Muslim Student Association at Marshall University to lead a really powerful event we learned about while in Lebanon (Bread & Salt).  

We asked him a few questions about what happened:

What is your local context like?

I’m a university student on a campus of roughly 14,000 students, of which approximately 600 are international students. The majority of our international students come from China and Saudi Arabia. This number, however, does not include the children of immigrants who were born and raised in the States, bringing with them to our community a unique mix of Eastern and Western cultural practices and ideas. Our city has approximately 40,000-45,000 residents. Some residents of our state say that Huntington is one of the most welcoming cities to diversity in our state.

What is it that you did to bring about change?

I collaborated with the Muslim Students Association at my school to plan and host an interfaith circle. We advertised this meeting as “Bread and Salt | Khebz w Meleh” and utilized the Guidelines for Dialogue used in the program of the same name that was developed by the Institute of Middle East Studies in Beirut, Lebanon. We literally broke bread together and had a Q&A session to discuss the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity. Similar events happened last year, but there was no structure to them and they tended to be very jumbled and disorganized. Now, our format seems to be much more clear and “user-friendly.” 

How did it go?

When one of my Muslim friends and I were planning the event, we said, “Oh, we’ll plan for 15-20 but expect 10 or so people… including ourselves!” The Lord answered my prayers for 15… and more than doubled the turnout! We had 32 students at our first Khebz w Meleh meeting, and there was a fairly equal number of Christians and Muslims gathered together. There were no times of awkward silence or heated arguments, and the questions asked were insightful, respectful, and thought-provoking. I think everyone in attendance was challenged in their own faith by the questions posed by members of the other faith community. I think we all grew personally and gained something from Bread and Salt.

What were some of the conversations that happened?

Our conversation was mostly focused on “the basics”… to an extent. A couple of topics included heaven, religious leaders and their roles, “dress codes”/expectations, and confession/atonement/repentance. We ended the meeting with the following question: What do you think are the biggest similarities and differences in our faiths, and how can we come together and unite despite our differences?

Did any of the relationships continue beyond this?

Yes! I have had several people come up to me from both communities and say, “I saw ____ today! We met at the event, and we’re getting coffee tomorrow!” Some students have even gone so far as to begin reading each faith’s holy books with one another in order to better understand their beliefs. New friends are hanging out between classes, sharing meals together, and going to local fall festivals and activities together.

Do you have any final remarks?

It brings my heart so much joy to see my peers denouncing stereotypes and misconceptions that they and society have developed and forming these new friendships. Bridging the divides between us doesn’t have to consist of anything fancy. In my own life, it has meant trying new foods for the first time; going to Walmart with international students; taking friends to the DMV to get their driver’s license; helping write and revise resumes; having internationals over to my home for dinner. Of course, as a follower of Christ, I desire to see those that I love come to know Christ as their Lord and Savior. But if I am not first a person of love and friendship, then the Gospel message will be void when I share it. We, the Church, have to be willing to be uncomfortable and break society’s norms in order to love our neighbors – both domestic and international – just as Christ Himself loved us. Whether that is hosting your own interfaith discussion or saying hello to the person next to you in line at Starbucks, I encourage you to do something “radical” this month, this week, or maybe even today to share your love for others and the nations. 

Marion Clifton