St. James Menomonee Falls Hosts Muslim Guests in Conversation

The words “interfaith dialogue” seemed a bit too rigid for wanting to spend time “walking in each other’s shoes,” so St. James Parish in Menomonee Falls and the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s coalition didn’t use them. Instead, they lead a conversation.

“It’s neat to see these kids interact, because it’s pure,” said Rick Schmidt, a teacher at St. James Parish, who organized the Lenten event. “They don’t have what we adults have. They just want to get to know somebody and they really pushed us to do this.”

“I’m really happy that they’re able to ask questions, to learn more,”  said Othman Atta of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. “I think it helps everyone understand each other.”

This year was St. James’ opportunity to host. The students had gathered at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s facility last year. The St. James students guided 60 teen guests to the historic chapel, cemetery, worship space, gathering area and community center.

“One of the most interesting things was how interested they were about our religion,” said St. James’ Emma O’Neill. “They came up with questions that were so insightful, that even some Catholics might not know.”

“I think more places should have events like this,” said Ridaa Nowman, a student at Salam School. “When people think about different religious views, they think of division. This event was able to give us a sense of unity between Christians and Muslims. Although our hands were folded in different ways while praying, it was to the same God, and we prayed for many of the same things.” “I learned a lot about Islam and my faith, as well as how acceptance is truly the key to peace and understanding,” said St. James’ Lauren Masarik. “It is important to see our similarities instead of our differences, and Islam and Catholicism are very similar in intent and teachings. Don’t we all just want to be better people?”

The event stemmed from a unit on peace and justice for the St. James’ students. While talking about paranoia, they decided as a class to visit a mosque and learn firsthand who Muslim people actually are.

In the midst of what is often a polarizing political climate, the St. James community and the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition  brought their children together with the simple idea of learning.

“In all, the event was eye-opening and fun,” said O’Neill. “One moment that took the cake was when one of the Muslim girls sitting at my table said ‘You are literally me,’ which in teenage slang means, ‘You are so similar to me.’ It made me think: Just because we belong to different faith communities, doesn’t mean we are that different after all.”

(Rick Schmidt, a teacher at St. James, gathered the quotes and comments for this article.)