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Two Pennsylvania congregations build interfaith relationships, aid refugee resettlement

1.30. 2017 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite 849 Times read

Photo: Dr. Shawke Soueidan speaks to members of Salford Mennonite Church. Photo provided. 

This story first appeared in the December issue of The Mennonite magazine. To read more feature-length stories, subscribe to The Mennonite today. 

“We have similar foundations for our family. We raise our children the same ways that you raise yours. We feel that in order to become a true friend to somebody, you have to accept them as who they are. God created us equally in his eyes and that’s what we try to practice.”

Bachir Soueidan gets excited when he talks about the interfaith connections that have blossomed between his family and the members of Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pa.

Soueidan moved to the United States in 1962, with Salma, his wife, both Lebanese Muslims. In 1979, they moved into their current home in Harleysville. In February 2002, Bachir decided to attend an event hosted by the Indian Valley Public Library that was striving to educate Pennsylvanians about Islam. Following the attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment was sweeping the country, and the library events hoped to counteract this fear with education.

While standing in line to talk to the speaker, a young Muslim student from Philadelphia, Bachir bumped into Phil and Betsy Moyer, members of Salford who had also attended the event. The Moyers were hoping to invite the speaker to come present at Salford, and Soueidan was interested in attending the event, too. The three traded email addresses, and later that month, the Moyers invited the Soueidans to join them for dinner and an ongoing relationship was born.

“We’ve truly become family to each other,” said Betsy Moyer, in an Oct. 19 phone interview. “We really regard our friendship as a gift.”

Since that initial meeting, the Moyers and Soueidans have gotten together regularly, and through their friendship, both Bachir and Salma have had opportunities to connect with the members at Salford. They have been speakers and helped lead a “Be Not Afraid” weekend in 2006, highlighting dialogue and education between Christians and Muslims, and have attended worship at Salford on numerous occasions.

Before Joe Hackman, Salford’s current lead pastor, joined the church staff, he was a social studies teacher at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. While teaching a class on world cultures, Hackman invited Bachir to speak to his class about the five pillars of Islam.

When he became pastor of Salford, his connection with Bachir continued. They would call each other occasionally to ask questions or go out for lunch to talk about what was happening in their lives. During one such get together, the Soueidans told Hackman they wanted to provide a Lebanese meal for the Salford congregation, as a way to extend generosity during the Muslim holy season of Ramadan. They repeated this gesture on Sept. 17, paying to cater a meal for members of the Salford community to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Muslim Eid al-Adha, the “Sacrifi ce Feast” holiday. Damascus, a restaurant in Allentown, Pa., run by a family of recent Syrian refugees, catered the meal.

Hackman says the relationship with the Soueidans has helped expand the congregation’s understanding of God and their neighbors. “Really, the core of our faith as Christians is this call to love God and to love our neighbors, and I see that being at the heart of Salma and Bachir’s life and at the heart of our congregational life,” said Hackman. “I think it’s given us a wider, larger view of God and the world to see them practicing their faith in such a devoted way, again by loving God and loving neighbor.”

A ripple effect

The Soueidans were also influential in inspiring Salford to help with resettlement for two Arabic-speaking refugee families. They helped support the congregation, providing translation and helping bridge the cultural gaps between the congregation and the Muslim families they were helping resettle.

Hackman credits the Soueidans with giving the congregation the confidence they needed to know that they could build cross-cultural and interfaith relationships with the families they helped resettle, and the Soueidans have been inspired to dig into this work through Salford’s example.

“As Arabs and as Muslims, we cannot sit aside and see our friends devoting so much effort and resources to help people and not follow the call of our own faith,” said Bachir. “They [Salford] have set the bar for us and we will try to continue to be involved.”

Congregation members also helped provide supplies, transportation and community connections to help make the families’ transitions to the United States easier. Bachir and Salma also pitched in to help with translation and support for another Mennonite congregation, Plains Mennonite Church in Hatfield, Pa., which chose to support a refugee family from Iraq.

Support for refugees has been a part of the Plains’ ministry since the 1970s, when they helped resettle

Bachir and Salma Soueidan. Photo provided.

refugees following the Vietnam War. In addition to supporting an Iraqi family, the church has helped three young adult siblings, the Monga family from the Democratic Republic of Congo, find a home in Pennsylvania.

“This expands our world and allows us to pay closer attention to the global plight of people who are unsettled from horrific situations that the [United States] has sometimes played a role in,” said Plains Pastor Michael Derstine in a Nov. 8 phone interview. “It’s an important reminder that God’s family transcends our borders and even some of our stereotypes.”

Today, both congregations retain close ties with the families they have helped resettle. Delphin, Mbusa and Jeanno Monga all attend Plains Mennonite, and together they helped draft a Christmas litany the congregation used during worship in 2015. The litany interwove stories of the Monga family’s experience in Congo with the biblical story of Mary and Joseph needing to leave their homeland and travel to Bethlehem.

Young adults expand connections

For young adults growing up at Salford, the relationship with the Soueidan family made an impression. According to Hackman, three young adults from the congregation have chosen to work or live in Arabic-speaking contexts, several serving with Mennonite Central Committee.

Seth Malone is serving as the Peace Program Coordinator for MCC in Jerusalem. He was drawn to this position after visiting the Israel-Palestine region for a cross-cultural trip during college and taking on a short-term work assignment with MCC in Jordan. During these experiences, he discovered he was passionate about the Middle East and the people in Palestine and Israel who have lived in a state of ongoing conflict for many years.

Malone credits Salford with laying the foundation for the work that he is doing now.

“Salford has [continued] and continues to challenge me to be open to people from all backgrounds. This is incredibly important in a context of conflict like in Palestine and Israel. Just as I have been welcomed and served by the congregation, I, too, must go out, welcome and serve others…and be served by them as well,” wrote Malone in an Oct. 23 email. “Salford has provided a beautiful space in which I am able to learn humility and grace for these encounters with others. And it is the hope of these encounters that we may all together encounter God and God’s justice and peace.”

This story first appeared in the December issue of The Mennonite magazine. To read more feature-length stories, subscribe to The Mennonite today. 

 

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