An act of hospitality for college students volunteering for service during spring break turned into an unplanned experience in interfaith relations for a Baptist church in Roanoke, Va.
Grandin Court Baptist Church Pastor Kevin Meadows said it wasn’t until a few days before students from the University of Michigan volunteering at the distribution center of Feeding America Southwest Virginia showed up for lodging at the congregation’s ministry center that church members learned that all 14 were Muslims.
Other than a few quick shifts like changing menus to meet Islamic dietary guidelines and securing a quiet location for prayer, the congregation continued with its plans to host the volunteers from Michigan.
“There was a hint of apprehension wondering how our congregation and community might receive the students,” Meadows said, but after opening its doors, church members were the ones who were blessed.
The students initially planned to arrive Saturday evening, but due to transportation problems were delayed until Sunday morning. They quickly unloaded their gear during the Sunday school hour and joined the congregation for its 11 a.m. worship service.
“Many of the students had not been to a Christian worship service and were intrigued by the amount of music and other aspects of the service that are not part of their custom or tradition,” Meadows said. “They were surprised during welcome time that church members greeted them and shook their hands.”
On a blog posted by the Muslim Students’ Association at the University of Michigan, one student wrote: “The worship service itself was interesting. We constantly outline the differences in our religions when in fact there are tenets that hold true in many religions. The sermon was about outer and inner cleanliness and how our status is not an excuse to treat others poorly. The service was filled with music — a unique experience for me, yet one I enjoyed. There was a genuine sense of community and family within the church, and even as a visitor from Michigan, I felt accepted.”
Other students wrote about being approached and welcomed by complete strangers. Their favorite part of the experience? Food and fellowship.
“The highlight of our day was definitely dinner,” one student wrote. “The food, a hearty meal of salad and lasagna prepared for us by the Grandin Court Baptist Church, was fantastic, but the company was even better. We dined with several members of the church community, including Pastor Kevin, Reverend Brandon [Burnette], Reverend Melissa [Fox] and Patti [Henkel]. We took the dinner as an opportunity to get to know each other and the interfaith dialogue was refreshing.”
The student described fascination to see how both faiths share overarching themes of God-consciousness and self-improvement. “We discussed some of the sectarian differences and traditions in both Islam and Christianity and how it’s a bit unfortunate that religion can be so divisive when it is meant to be a great unifier,” the student wrote. “However, it was encouraging to see that this was one challenge we have in common and that we can hopefully overcome together.”
Each day at Feeding America, the students “rescued” food by sorting dented cans, crushed boxes or other superficially damaged packaging to ensure it was safe and consumable. Extra activities included a sightseeing tour of the Roanoke Valley provided by the church in its bus and joining the Grandin Court youth in games and activities.
One day the students paused from their work to attend services at a local mosque. Meadows said he asked how they felt a Baptist minister would be received at the service.
“Most felt I would be received with great suspicion, because the worshippers would not know who I was and why I was there,” he said. He admitted to them that there likely are Baptist congregations that would look upon a Muslim visitor in the same manner.
Upon returning to Michigan, one MSA student blogged: “Grandin Court Baptist Church introduced us to the true meaning of Southern hospitality. With their homemade treats and accommodating facilities, the people there have been nothing short of amazing in their generosity and kindness.”
Meadows described the opportunity to host the young people as “a Kingdom moment.”
“They have been great guests and we have been blessed by getting to know them,” he said.