In a little more than a year, the Islamic Society plans to open a new mosque to serve its growing membership in the east metro, to be built on a 29-acre plot of farmland about five miles from my Lutheran church in Afton.
In light of some growing anti-Muslim rhetoric around the state — highlighted in a recent front-page story in the Sunday Star Tribune — I’m kind of proud of Memorial Lutheran (ELCA) of Afton, whose members skew older and whiter.
About a dozen members of the congregation showed up at an Afton City Council meeting to urge passage of a conditional use permit to build the mosque. The council agreed — with a 5–0 vote.
I figure that makes my fellow Lutheranians (as my Catholic buddy dubs us) a kind of advance welcoming party, which, I believe, is good for our congregational soul.
Our appearance at the council meeting was preceded by four informational sessions about Islam initiated by interim pastor Sam Wolff.
Those attending included longtime church member Bob Swenson, who lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, with Muslims as bosses, employees, neighbor and friends.
Swenson, 84, ran food services for several outfits, including oil companies and a Saudi Royal Commission, and he read the Quran before going to the Middle East (and found it less threatening than the Old Testament).
“I lived in a home in Saudi four doors from a mosque,” Bob told the Afton council. “And we got along very well. I found Islam to be a loving religion, that even recognizes Jesus Christ as a prophet.”
Fear of ‘invasion’
One Afton resident, her voice quavering as she read from a prepared statement, argued that Islam and its followers should be feared, especially since (it was her understanding) that no Afton residents requested that the mosque be built.
“That means the pressure to erect it is coming from outside the city of Afton,” she said. “We are keenly aware that threats and force are just part of their jihad attack. This is an invasion.”
Jon Kroschel, a Memorial member and former mayor of Afton, wasn’t buying that nonsense. He was pleased with the council’s decision.
“This makes a statement,” he said, “that the world is getting smaller. They’re our neighbors. We welcome them.”
I was glad to be part of that welcome, no longer hiding behind the objectivity I thought I had to project as a reporter. My last reporting gig was 20 years ago, and I figured it was high time I took a public stand — not that Afton’s council members were breathlessly waiting for my words of wisdom.
Many pathways to God
The truth is it just felt good to do the right thing.
“I’m 75 years old, “ I said, “old enough to know that there are several pathways to God, and I welcome our Muslim brothers and sisters on this journey.”
When the mosque is built, it will comply with all the rules and regulations of this largely rural community — no minarets higher than the surrounding church spires, no loud speakers on the outside of the building and no bright lights to disrupt the peace and quiet of evening. A row of evergreens will provide a privacy screen for any nearby neighbors.
Faith and ice cream
When I — and my fellow church members — walked out of the town hall after the vote, most of these new neighbors shook our hands and said, “Thank you.”
What we did that spring evening was just living up to the mission statement we’ve got written on our church wall: “To welcome without exception, listen without judgment, support without prejudice all people, and in this way, to be Christ for others.”
We also held an ice cream social on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon — a gaggle of Lutherans and Muslims — and more than 100 attended. We exchanged names, told stories, shared faiths.
In the end, we discovered what we already knew: We believe in the same God.
Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.