Interfaith community

Those involved in the South Metro Interfaith Community include, from left, Burnsville resident Chris Erickson, Burnsville Mosque Imam Mohammed Dukuly and Burnsville resident Paul Gilje. They’re pictured at the mosque, where the group meets. (Photo by John Gessner)

Several south metro worship groups joining hands

A standing dialogue between members of five religious communities in the south metro area started with a chance encounter.

Paul Gilje was dining at the now-closed Ramadan Restaurant and Grill in Burnsville when he struck up a conversation with the owner.

Accompanied by a fellow churchgoer, Gilje  mentioned that they were trying to drum up support for Eagan-based nonprofit Feed My Starving Children. Restaurant owner Ikram Huq invited Gilje to make his pitch at the Ar Rahman Muslim Community Center in Bloomington, where Huq is the imam.

Gilje went on a Friday in February 2012. As the faithful left their prayer service, one handed him an envelope.

Opening it in his car, “I saw a one, I saw a zero and I saw another zero,” said the 50-year Burnsville resident and longtime member of Prince of Peace Lutheran in Burnsville. “That just blew me away. He knew nothing about me. But he was moved to make a hundred-dollar contribution to Feed My Starving Children. That’s just stuck in my heart ever since.”

Through Huq, Gilje was introduced to Mohammed Dukuly, imam of the Islamic Institute of Minnesota’s Burnsville Mosque near Highway 13. The two have been instrumental in forming and sustaining the South Metro Interfaith Community, which has held informal meetings at the mosque roughly every other month since 2012.

Knowing the fellowship of food crosses all divides, last month the group held its largest gathering yet — a potluck picnic at Cliff Fen Park in Burnsville attended by nearly 100 people.

“And thanks to the prayers of five different faiths, we got 85-degree weather on the 11th of October,” Gilje said.

Key interfaith players include Prince of Peace, Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Burnsville, the Burnsville Mosque, Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights, the Hindu Milan Mandir temple in Farmington and the Watt Munistotaram Buddhist temple in Hampton.

Gilje said because of Burnsville’s growing diversity, an interfaith group has been on his mind for several years.

Dukuly calls those of other faiths his “brothers and sisters” and says he’s “overwhelmed and amazed” the mosque has become the chosen meeting site.

“When the brothers and sisters come here, all they see from us is love and respect,” said Dukuly, who has been the Burnsville imam for six years. “We’d never say anything to offend anybody.”

Theological differences are not an excuse for failing to unite behind “the essence of religion — it’s about humanity,” Dukuly said. He said he preaches to his congregants that “we cannot live in isolation.”

“I believe that we can together, the Christian community, the Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Hindu, the Buddhist community, make the south metro area to be one of the most secure places in the United States, as long as we work together like this,” he said.

Dukuly said he condemns elements in Islam “that are doing stuff on their own, and it’s not based on Islamic teachings.” The Prophet Muhammad promoted tolerance, the imam said, pointing to the first dialogues between Christians and Muslims more than 1,400 years ago at Medina.

“The relationship between Christians and Muslims has been very upstanding,” he said. “And our Quran tells us that we’ll find close to us a relationship, and love those who say that they are Christians, because among them there are monks and priests who work for the service of humanity, and they are not arrogant.”

Guests at the interfaith meetings have included Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke, School District 191 Superintendent Joe Gothard and a representative of the Wilder Foundation, who spoke on metro-area poverty.

Representatives from each faith have spoken on their faith’s commitment to the poor. The group’s structure remains loose.

“We don’t have any officers,” said Gilje, a former associate director of the  Citizens League in Minnesota and now executive director of the Civic Caucus. “We don’t have any budget. And we don’t have any organization, no 501(c)(3). Meanwhile, we’re having a good time coming together.”

The group has left a trail of physical evidence — a prayer chain made of colored construction paper, started by Burnsville resident and Prince of Peace member Chris Erickson.

He started the chain after nine were killed in the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in June. It went from Erickson’s home Fourth of July party to the mosque, where Dukuly welcomed Erickson after Friday prayers for a couple of weeks.

With the Muslims’ contributions, the chain grew from 10 links to 10 feet. Erickson then took it to the Hindu temple.

“Well, it grew to over 20 feet,” he said. “Now I’m trying to get it into a Jewish synagogue and still trying to arrange that. And I hope to bring it to a Christian church early in December. We’re trying to move it around.”

The next South Metro Interfaith Community meeting is Friday, Nov. 13, at the mosque, 1351 Riverwood Drive. Social hour is from 1:30-2 p.m., followed by the meeting from 2-3 p.m. The public is welcome.

For more information, call Gilje at 952-890-5220 or Dukuly at 612-386-5370.

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