Davis Memorial Presbyterian Church in Gassaway, WV, has an average attendance on Sunday mornings of 11. However, don’t let the size of this small, rural congregation fool you because this worshiping community is doing and experiencing great things.
In late June, the Rev. James Riggs, a United Methodist pastor who is a temporary member of the Presbytery of West Virginia who is filling the pulpit these days at Davis Memorial, invited a leader from the Islamic Association of West Virginia to participate in a dialog sermon with him centered on the Biblical story of Hagar and Ishmael. This discussion provided different viewpoints for the congregation to hear and reflect on surrounding this conflictual passage.
“I think God’s presence was such that people knew that this was an important, perhaps a watershed event, for that community,” James said reflecting on the importance of morning worship on June 25.
With James and Iman Nasir Abdussalam standing side-by-side at the pulpit, James opened the dialog sermon by giving a Judeo-Christian perspective of the reading. James then sat down, and Nasir remained to tell the Muslim interpretation of the passage. The congregation listened intently during this unique Sunday service.
“It was quiet,” James recalled. “People weren’t rustling, coughing, nervous or anxious. They were attentive, and there was respect and silence in the sanctuary.”
The idea for a dialog sermon was James’, who had orchestrated something similar with a previous congregation. Referring to the ordination of elders section of the Presbyterian Book of Order, there is a request to “serve with creativity.” James admits to taking this command very seriously and likes to think outside of the box when it comes to Sunday morning worship planning.
With the June 25 lectionary reading focusing on the story of Hagar and Ishmael, James felt it was a perfect time to use some imagination once again for worship. Knowing that the Muslim traditions have a different spin on this Biblical story, James decided to reach out to the Islamic Association of West Virginia and request an imam to share the pulpit with him that morning.
As the Bible tells it, Hagar was a slave who Sarah gave to her husband Abram (later named Abraham) to conceive a child because Sarah, it was believed, could not bear children. During Hagar’s pregnancy, Hagar and Sarah fought. Hagar was eventually cast out by Abraham but returned before giving birth to Ishmael. When Sarah later gave birth to Isaac, she and Hagar fought again, for Sarah feared that Ishmael would inherit the family’s wealth and not Isaac.
Sarah asks Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, knowing that without water the two would die. Abraham is conflicted, but God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s wishes, assuring Abraham that God will provide for them in the wilderness. And when God hears Hagar and Ishmael’s cries for help, God saves them by leading them to water. Later on, God asks Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him, marking the second time Abraham is asked to have one of his sons sacrificed in one manner or another.
“We see Sarah in a light that is very human, and the writer of Genesis – Moses – does not attempt to clean her up, make her look better than she is, but report her as being very human and with human emotions like anger, jealousy and resentment,” James said. “It’s out of that humanity of Sarah that she makes this extreme request of Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael off to a certain death.
“Of course, God has other plans in mind and promises to Hagar and Ishmael that God himself will make a strong nation from them as well, not just from Isaac. And, so, we have the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
This story from Genesis 21 has two different perspectives from the Bible and Quran, and that was the message James was hoping his congregation would hear on this Sunday morning.
“The chief difference is the Judeo-Christians see Hagar as a servant or slave girl, something less than the status of Sarah,” James said. “However, in the Muslim tradition, they interpret that from their scriptures as Hagar being equal to Sarah. Hagar is not a servant or second class but equal to Sarah.
“Hagar and Ishmael become the foundation of Islam. It’s important for us, rather than to emphasize our differences, to talk about our different interpretations of that and also to respect that we both, Judeo-Christians and Muslims, come from the same father, Abraham. We have a common ancestor. In fact, Muslims interpret Jesus as being a prophet – maybe not to the extent as Muhammad, but an important prophet to the world – and we see Jesus as the son of God.”
In June, many Muslims will make their annual pilgrimage to Mecca where they re-enact the story of Hagar trying to find water for Ishmael. The timing of that trip fit in well with the dialog sermon that occurred at Davis Memorial on the last Sunday of the month.
“It was very timely,” James said. “In terms of dialog, it wasn’t give-and-take, but rather being respectful by presenting the Judeo-Christian understanding and then giving equal time, if not more, to talk about the Muslim perspective of that in an effort for us to understand that just because we read it in our scriptures doesn’t necessarily mean that other faiths see it just the same way.”
The Davis Memorial pastor invited neighboring congregations of different denominations to attend but the total attendance was still less than 20. Because of the lengthy travel time from the Islamic Association of West Virginia in South Charleston to Gassaway, no one from the Muslim faith beside Nasir attended. The lack of attendance didn’t affect the impact it had on those who were in the pews.
“I set the stage before we began that this is not an attempt to try to convert anybody to anything but rather to understand our differences, respect our differences and to live in harmony with one another,” James said. “I hope this was a beginning for us of how to live in harmony and peace and respect one another’s traditions and learn from them rather than to expect someone to be just like we are.
“I feel it’s important for us to make an effort – and the church needs to be the one to lead the way – to have people who are different than we are and have different beliefs and hear from their perspective how they understand this. It’s through understanding and through dialog that we can at least approach peace.
“I’m not naïve. This little experience in little Gassaway, WV, probably isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s a beginning. I’m proud that this very small church was able to make a difference at least in our corner of the world.”
Anyone interested in contacting the Rev. James Riggs about this ecumenical experience can reach him by phone or email (304-918-3211, firstname.lastname@example.org).