The pastor and the imam: Good sidewalks make good neighbors

Imam Sohail Chaudhry (Raymond Tucker Cordani)

East Lansing, Mich. — On the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, members of a Lutheran church and a mosque have forged a strong bond based on education, faith and mutual respect.

For 37 years, the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing, the region's sole mosque, has shared a property line with University Lutheran Church. Established in 1979, the mosque has 1,500 members and 150 children attend its school. In 1972 the Lutheran congregation moved to its current location from the old State Theater in Lansing. Today, the church has 750 members.

The respective worship sites are practically wall to wall, with nothing separating them but shrubbery and brick walkways installed last year, a joint project between the communities.

Imam Sohail Chaudhry arrived in Michigan in 2014 from West Virginia, where he had lectured at the Islamic Center of Morgantown and served as a prison chaplain in the Midwest and the South.

Chaudhry, 34, said he was "over the moon" when he discovered the cohesiveness between University Lutheran Church and the Islamic Society.

"Since we share common goals, reaching out to those in need, we accepted the invitation to serve side by side and bring our faiths together," he said. "We are thankful to God for such kind neighbors and want to transfer this love to the next generation."

"Islam means submission to the Creator," he added. "His peace cannot be achieved without serving creation. That is the message of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him."

For the Rev. Frederick Fritz, pastor of University Lutheran Church, serving side by side with members of other faiths is all in a day's work. This year, the church celebrates its 75th anniversary. Fritz, 62, has led its flock since 2003. In a spirit of solidarity, he offered to his neighbors use of the church parking lot on Fridays when the Islamic Society's members assemble to pray.

"Our reward is our service," Fritz said. "Faithful discipleship is what Lutheranism is all about. That has to be the bottom line. We try not to see in black and white."

Fritz has been preparing for his current role his entire career. Ordained in 1979, he served in parishes throughout the Midwest and taught education at Minnesota State University. As chaplain, he offered Muslim students space to pray at his church.

"I grew up in a small Ohio town," he said. "I always had a sense that the world was bigger. I wanted to get out and see it."

After ordination, he planned to study at an Islamic seminary in Cairo, but the Iran hostage crisis deterred him. He never picked up Arabic but said that Islam is "like a second language to me."

Fr. Mark Inglot, pastor of St. John Church and Student Center at Michigan State University, has worked closely with Fritz in ecumenical and interfaith events on campus. "Pastor Fritz's church and the mosque are examples of what society needs to learn, to be good neighbors," the Catholic priest said.

Chaudhry's faith journey began when he immigrated to the United States in 1999 to study at University of West Virginia. He described his faith as tepid back then, until he researched world religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam "share a common thread," he said.

"Muslims are like everybody else," he said, "living paycheck to paycheck and worrying about the same things that we all worry about: jobs, kids, education. Does misunderstanding [between faiths] exist? Absolutely. That's why the way forward is education. Leadership on both ends of the walkways is committed to sharing education."

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, members of the church stood with those from the mosque to guard the building and they supported plans to open the school at the Islamic Society.

The Rev. Sara Cogsil, who is Episcopalian, is one of two female associate pastors at University Lutheran Church. Commenting on relations between the communities, she said, "This isn't just a congregational partnership but a communal partnership. Our relationship is vital. East Lansing clergy are working on developing support for the Islamic center."

Fritz said that the relationship has grown stronger over the years. In October, 50 members of the mosque joined 100 parishioners for "God's Work, Our Hands," a service project where volunteers filled 10,000 plastic bags with rice, beans, spices, and soybeans and packed them off to food banks worldwide.

"The poet Robert Frost wrote, 'Good fences make good neighbors,' " Fritz said. "To that I would add, good sidewalks and playgrounds make good neighbors, too."

[Raymond Tucker Cordani teaches writing at Jackson College in Michigan. He has written for Catholic News Service, Faith magazine and Columbia magazine.*]

*Cordani's bio has been updated. 

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