Many people are daunted by the prospect of engaging with the Muslims on their doorstep. There really is no need to be scared. Muslim people are people like anybody else, typically with the same hopes and fears for their children and facing the same stresses and strains of everyday life. I want to offer few simple steps to engaging with Muslims in your area.
Hang around where Muslims hang around
A great way to reach Muslims is to make friends with them. Of course, to make friends with Muslims you need to put yourself in the places where they tend to be. It consists of what somebody once called, ‘the ministry of hanging around’.
The obvious place to go is down to the mosque. Simply go in and make yourself known, explain that you are from a local church and are interested in finding out about Islam. Often they will arrange a time for you to come back (often with a group) so that you can be shown around and ask questions.
Otherwise, you might find Muslim people to befriend at the local park, on the bus, at the school gate, in local shops, so on and so forth. Simply being prepared to strike up conversation with Muslim neighbours, or those sitting in the places where you happen to go, are all great ways to begin engaging with Muslim people.
Get buy-in from an imam
If you are interested in setting up regular meetings to which you can invite people, it is vital to get the buy-in from an imam. Again, one of the easiest ways to make links with a local imam is by introducing yourself as from the local church and asking if he would mind showing you (or preferably a group) around. Once you have done this, you might be able to offer a similar introduction for him and those who attend the mosque.
A similarly soft introduction can come through local interfaith groups. The benefit of these sorts of groups is not in their content. Much of the time, the issues discussed are not gospel-centred and those invited would not all be clear as to (a) what the gospel is or (b) believe the same gospel at all. Nonetheless, forbear with such groups because in them excellent relationships can be built and from them you may be able to get the buy-in from an imam for a localised version in your area between a particular mosque and your own church.
Provide space for special interest groups
Much of the issue in starting Muslim-Christian dialogue is simply getting Muslims and Christians together in the same room. Instead of going straight for an evening of polemical debate (which is probably not the end-goal or most conducive approach anyway), perhaps find an activity that can be shared.
At Bethel Church, our cultural/dialogue evenings started life out as a poetry evening. Some local Pakistanis interested in Urdu poetry wanted a space in which to share their poems. We offered the use of our building provided they were happy to let us join in with English, Welsh and Farsi poems (I think we also ended up including Bengali and Hindi poems too). These poetry evenings (or, more accurately, our one poetry evening) morphed immediately into our regular interfaith dialogue meetings.
If poetry is not of interest to anybody near you, you might want to try a cookery group. You can learn how to make amazing curry and roti while you might be able to teach British baking. Otherwise, perhaps come together around art or photography. The actual interest around which the group focuses isn’t really of great importance. What matters is getting Christian and Muslim people in the same room at all.
Offer to meet a need
In an area of high deprivation and immigration, it is not hard to imagine that there are plenty of needs to be met. Many first generation immigrants have real and immediate language needs. If you can provide English Classes for those who speak Muslim-majority languages you will find a steady stream of Muslims prepared to come to your church. Alternatively, if you are able to offer a food bank – and provide a space for people to sit and chat at it – you may find those with such needs coming in whom you can befriend. Similarly, you may wish to work with Christian’s Against Poverty and set up a CAP job club or debt centre. Again, if there are local needs you can meet you will find Muslim people prepared to come into your church and engage with you.
On a more personal level, simply being a good neighbour to those roundabout you is a good place to start. Members of our church have found themselves tutoring their Muslim neighbours’ children, babysitting, helping with shopping and all sorts of different practical helps. This has built up real trust such that some families have engaged with various things the church does and have come to nativity plays, dialogue evenings and even our church outing.