WILLMAR — While there are unarguably many differences between Christianity and Islam, the overarching message of the interfaith dialogue last week Willmar was there is more common ground than one might expect and the differences should not keep people apart.
“It is OK to be friends and neighbors with people that are different than you,” said the Rev. Mandy France, pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Bird Island. “It is OK to be in a relationship with people who don’t believe what you believe.”
France and Dr. Ayaz Virji, of Dawson, conducted their 26th “Love Thy Neighbor” event Dec. 20 in front of a crowd of about 100 people at the Barn Theatre in Willmar. Virji and France have for a couple of years now been giving these talks, based on Virji’s book “Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America.”
The duo started them following the 2016 election, when Virji and his family started to experience a significant rise in Islamophobia in their home of Dawson, where Virji is a family practice physician.
“After the election, things did change, for whatever reason,” Virji said.
At the start of the Willmar presentation, they made sure to let people know they had no other agenda beyond starting a conversation.
“We are not here to argue or debate anyone. We are not hear to convert anyone,” France said. “The religion or whatever you walked in with, you are going to walk out with.”
During the two-hour presentation, France and Virji shared their stories about how they came together to give these presentations across the country. Virji shared information about Islam, and the two questioned each other about their respective religions. There was also a short question-and-answer segment with the audience toward the end.
Virji and his family had moved to Dawson in 2013, when Virji felt a calling to practice medicine in rural America, where there is a shortage of physicians. The treatment his family was receiving following the election made him start to rethink that mission. His family, including his young children, were called suicide bombers and terrorists to their faces, and Virji regularly receives hate mail.
“This is nonsense,” Virji said and he was thinking of leaving it all behind. While he accepted a position with New York University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Virji continues to live and work in Dawson for part of the year.
France, who in 2016 was an intern pastor, talked Virji into giving a presentation about Islam in Dawson, to teach people and show them there is nothing to fear.
“The message of the Bible is love. It was really conflicting to me,” France said of the treatment she witnessed Virji and his family receiving and the comments she heard from people who identify as Christian.
For Virji, Islam is a religion of peace and love and it’s just as much about good deeds as belief.
“Faith is a verb, you have to do it,” Virji said.