By Sue Sprang
EAST LANSING – On Sept. 20, Pastor Gary Bunge and University Lutheran Church, East Lansing, received an award of acknowledgement and appreciation. Bunge explained what the award entailed:
“The award came from Emgage Action at their Get Out the Vote Virtual Gala,” he said. “It is their Ambassador Award and was given to me and University Lutheran Church for our work and relationship with the Islamic Center of East Lansing.
“I had about two minutes to speak and talk about our relationship which goes back to the 1970’s. I was nominated by the son (member of the Islamic Center of East Lansing) of Emgage board member Dr. Iltefat Hamzavi.”
As stated by Bunge, the relationship between ULC and the Islam Society goes back to the 1970’s. It began with the Islam Society reaching out to University when its building was in need of expansion. When the request came before the East Lansing Planning Commission, ULC members and Pastor George Madsen, who was then serving the congregation, attended to give their full support for the project.
This seemed to be a natural move on both congregations’ parts. ULC was already allowing its Muslim neighbors to use its parking lot when they gathered for Friday prayers.
Pastor Fred Fritz came to ULC in 2003 and the relationship between the two bodies became even more intentional.
“When I came to Lansing I was immediately greeted by then Imam Omar Sobani,” Fritz said. “When the imam became ill, our [Church] Council presented him with a prayer quilt and prayed for him.”
In 2007, the congregations came together to landscape the property between the mosque parking lot and the church’s north driveway.
“A member of ULC drew up the plans and members of both communities did the work,” Fritz said. “The landscaping includes two brick paver sidewalks to connect the communities.”
The addition of the sidewalks provided an added bonus.
“Around [the time the walks were laid], the children from the [Islamic] Center’s school began using our yard and play area for recess,” Fritz said.
The year 2009 brought a new depth to the relationship when ULC, the Center, and the local synagogues began biannual interfaith discussions.
“Topics have included basic teachings of each tradition,” Fritz said, “as well as the role of women and the separation of church and state. Our next event will address earth keeping.”
The relationship between the two faith communities is certainly needed in today’s world and is one that has not gone unnoticed.
“In our time God seems to be bringing people of faith–Christian, Jewish, Muslim–together to work for justice and peace in the world God loves and to serve God’s most vulnerable children,” said Bishop Craig A. Satterlee of the North/West Lower Michigan Synod.
“It is both exciting and gratifying to see God at work in this way in East Lansing, on the territory of our synod.”
As the globe grows smaller and our nation grows in diversity, relationships such as the one between University and the Islamic Center can serve as healthy examples of finding common ground where we can work together for the common good of our communities and our world.
The link to the YouTube video of the Emgage Action event is Emgage Michigan Virtual Gala. In the video the part with Pastor Bunge/ULC begins at 1:28:12.
Note from, the author: Portions of this article were taken from two of my former works: “A Bold Collaboration” and “A Bold Collaboration, Part 2” (2015).