Al Siddiq

Al Siddiq, seen here in a 2013 photo, will be one of three speakers representing the Islamic faith in a series of conversations during upcoming First Presbyterian Church of Waco worship services.

A Waco Christian church will open its main worship service to a dialogue with members from Waco’s Islamic Center in a three-Sunday series starting this Sunday intended to increase interfaith understanding.

The series at First Presbyterian Church of Waco, 1100 Austin Ave., which carries the somewhat dry title “Reformed Christianity and Islam in Dialogue,” has a warmer, more human intent: finding where the two faiths find common ground and where they differ, not through an exchange of lectures, but in conversation.

The Rev. Leslie King, senior pastor at First Presbyterian, said the conversations, held during the church’s 10:30 a.m. worship service and open to the public, are meant to broaden understanding of both faiths. She hopes that will foster a greater sense of community in Waco while giving members a sharper awareness of what makes their faith distinctive.

That is best done in contact over time, hence the three Sundays with a potluck dinner following church the first two Sundays.

“Any religion cannot be understood in a sound bite,” King said.

The two-person dialogues will take place during the sermon time in Sunday worship, with leaders discussing topics including belief in God, prayer and expressions of one’s faith, with members’ questions worked in. King and associate pastor Dee Dee Carson will be sharing with Islamic Center of Waco President Al Siddiq, his son Bilal and center member David Oualaalou.

It is the latest opportunity to discuss Muslim faith and practice for Al Siddiq, who estimates he has spoken to some 60 Waco churches over the years. He is trying to counter what he sees as a mistaken perception in American media and politics that Islam is violent and its followers fanatical and anti-American.

Three Sundays will allow a more in-depth discussion of faith, and the three Muslims participating will show the democratic nature of mosque practice, he said.

“In our mosque, everybody is equal,” Siddiq said. “All can give the sermon. All can lead the prayers.”

Like Siddiq, Oualaalou, founder of Global Perspective Consulting and a McLennan Community College instructor in government, is quick to support discussion and dialogue of Islam with the larger community. While Christianity is the dominant faith for much of Waco, he has found Waco largely open and welcoming to its Muslim residents.

He recalled speaking at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church more than a year ago and being told he was the first Muslim to speak at that church.

“It meant a lot for me,” Oualaalou said.

Another forum at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church that he and Siddiq participated in resulted in an overflow audience interested in talking about Islam and Christianity.

“We dialogued in a civilized way and there was no right or wrong,” Oualaalou said. “This is what America is all about.”

King said First Presbyterian’s membership has long held an interest in interfaith exchanges and conversations in Waco, with a relationship already formed with the Islamic Center of Waco.

In recent years, the center has shared its final iftar meal during the holy month of Ramadan with the public. The iftar meal, held after sunset, breaks the daytime fast that marks each day of Ramadan.

Oualaalou said public turnout for the event has grown from some 70 people to more than 200 this year, prompting center leaders to contemplate enlarging the center to allow greater participation in the future.

Many of those iftar guests are First Presbyterian members, and King said her church’s Sunday series and meals are a gesture of appreciation.

“We at First Presbyterian like that event, and to reciprocate that hospitality we’re giving (center members) time in our pulpit to explain about their identity as Muslims in America,” she said.

Both Siddiq and Oualaalou remarked that their talks on their faith often have happened with the backdrop of terrorism and violence in the Middle East. With those national discussions at a relatively low ebb compared to past years, this month’s Sunday conversations may allow a better dialogue on what daily faith and practice looks for both Waco Christians and Muslims, Oualaalou said.

“We classically complain about things we don’t understand,” King said. “But I think we’ll realize that God is much larger than we can imagine.”

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