By Sue Sprang

EAST LANSING – At a time when intolerance seems to be the norm, it’s refreshing to come across an example that dispels that notion. In this case, it comes in the form of a long-standing relationship between University Lutheran Church and the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing, both in East Lansing.

The congregations, which have had a relationship for about 35 years, provide spiritual and religious guidance and services to Michigan State University and surrounding area, sit next to each other, share a parking lot and a playground, and hold interfaith opportunities and events. 

The long-time friendship went a step further when ULC asked the Islamic Center to join them for “God’s Work. Our Hands” Sunday in September 2015. The mosque’s spiritual leader, Imam Sohail Chaudhry, wasn’t surprised by the invitation, nor by his congregants’ eagerness to participate.

“When I came here, I was over the moon when I heard of the warm, close relationship with the Lutheran Church,” said Chaudhry, who came to the area in December 2014. 

“It is one of my goals to improve relationships with other faith communities and bring people of different faiths closer through education and collaborative efforts. In the case of the Lutheran Church, I didn’t have to make much effort because this relationship had been established before I arrived.”

The friendship between the two worshiping communities has continued to flourish. Prayer, education, and words and actions on behalf of one another are ongoing. The people of University are well aware of the threat of violence against Muslims across the United States, so are vigilant in their concern for their neighboring congregation. 

This strong bond laid a natural foundation for the mosque’s outreach to ULC when it came to taking steps toward environmental stewardship. The Islamic Center approached ULC with a friendly challenge in the form of solar energy.

“The Solar Project implemented by the Islamic Center is our attempt to care for God’s creation by generating electricity without a trace of carbon footprint,” said Chaudhry. “As a house of worship, we didn’t want to merely preach, rather, put our words into action. By producing electricity from a renewable source, we are conserving the environment as required by our faith.” 

Initially, the two congregations contemplated doing a joint solar project between their property lines, but realized the project was cost prohibitive in the short term. The Islamic Center moved ahead with the project with the installation of its own system.

“We installed a 10.24 KW Solar Array system on our rooftop – which generates only a small portion of the electricity we consume,” said Chaudhry. Not only does it serve the primary purpose of generating electricity, but it also serves as an example for our members to follow. We are treating this as a beginning and intend to grow the array in the future until it can produce enough energy to be self-sufficient.”

On ULC’s end, the idea went dormant for a couple years, although it was not completely forgotten – especially by its Muslim neighbors.

“We knew the Islamic Center had installed a solar array and some money had been donated at ULC for the project,” said Rev. Gary Bunge, lead pastor, “but there was not a great deal of energy for it except by the congregation’s Earthkeeping Team. However, when the Islamic Center surprised us with a gift of $25,000 for the project – although they said that there were no strings attached and we could use the money however we wished – the dormant idea came to life.”

With the Islamic Center money, other money donated to the solar project, money left from a bequest, and budgeted money saved with lower utility bills due to COVID-19, University was able to fund the second half of the project. The solar panels were installed by early September and are now producing electricity.

“Our friendship with the University Lutheran Church spans decades now,” said Chaudhry. “We have worked together on several initiatives to benefit our local communities. When we could not fulfill our goal of a joint solar project, and had to go our own ways, we did not want ULC to be left behind. After all, they are such wonderful neighbors to us, accommodating our parking needs every Friday and during the month of Ramadan. 

“There are some things money can’t buy, and the generosity of the ULC is one of them. So we came up with the proposal of presenting the gift and challenging their members to match the donation so that their energy needs can be fully met for decades to come.

“ULC was quite surprised by the gift,” he added. “They never had any expectation of a return for their kindness towards us. So when we presented the gift, they wondered why! And for our part, it was a small gesture to say thank you to the kind members and wise leaders at the University Lutheran Church.”.

The thankfulness for the strong bond between the two congregations is reciprocated by ULC:

“We are so grateful for the friendship and relationship that we have with the Islamic Center. They are incredibly gracious neighbors,” said Bunge. “We are grateful that we can share our parking space with them, and grateful for the ways that we can come together to serve our community. This relationship is a gift to both worshiping communities and a model for the rest of the world.”

Bishop Craig Satterlee of the North/West Lower Michigan Synod, where ULC resides, also commented on the relationship:

“The world’s future is people pulling together to respond to God in acts of God’s will,” he said. “I am thrilled – genuinely thrilled for the concrete acts of faith in East Lansing within our synod.”