Learning God’s business together

A Muslim boy asked his mother: ‘Is it true only Muslims get to paradise?’ Mother replied: ‘Who said that?’ ‘My teacher’, answered the boy. Mother smiled and said: ‘Who gets to heaven or hell is not your business; neither is it your teacher’s.’

This story was shared by Shafa Elmirzana, a Muslim academic, at the 12th gathering of the Scholastics and Brothers Circle in Klaten, Indonesia. The meeting was aimed at fostering friendship and forging collaboration for mission among young Jesuits.

The meeting took as its theme the call of GC 34 for interreligious dialogue. It aimed at building inter-faith relations with a particular focus on Islam. The program was facilitated by Fr Heru Prakosa, sj of the Indonesian province who studied Islam for over twelve years before beginning work in the area of Inter-faith relations.

Part of the program divided the participants in groups of ten to live in a Pesantren – an Islamic boarding school. There, the young Jesuits immersed themselves in the lives of the Muslim students, taking part in their daily activities and talking with them about Islam and Christianity.


Making friends

Reflecting on the experience, Mark Lopez who is finishing regency in Cambodia, said ‘A highlight for me was making friends among Muslim youth and getting to know their dreams and aspirations; how they lived and studied. I felt so very warmly welcomed and I experienced remarkable hospitality.’

Mark was impressed by the largeness of heart shown by the Muslims he met. ‘Muslims who engage us in dialogue put so much on the line, given the social rejection and sometimes life-threatening situations they risk,’ he said. ‘And that they continue to do so is testament to their openness and magnanimity.’For Mark, the encounter with Muslims provided him with an insight that Islamic mysticism is deeply similar to Christian mysticism.

The importance of mysticism also struck Michael Phung Kah Heng of the Malaysia‑ Singapore Region, who is a philosophy student in Jakarta.


Mysticism and friendship

‘I was much encouraged by the exploration of  mysticism as a possible means for religions to meet’, he said.

He found the close contact with the santris, 18–20 year old students from the pesantran, a very touching experience.

The young Jes uits who participated in the meeting did not find the enc ounter with other faiths and cultures entirely new.

Arun Prakash D’Souza, a scholastic of the Japanese Province describes his Indian background as multi-religious and multicultural. ‘I have had opportunities to interact with Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists during my childhood and schoolda ys’, says Arun. ‘I grew up with them’, he continued. ‘During my time as a novice, I was often involved in social outreach and  immersion programs with people from other faiths’, he added.

Michael Phung Kah Heng of the Region of Malaysia‑S ingapore lived with his extended family, some of whom were Taoists. ‘You could say that I lived in a house with two faiths’, Michael said. 

‘My late grandmother got my brother and me to take part when she performed her prayers and rituals’, he recalled. ‘In many ways, it was a cultural as well as a religious encounter’, he added.


Meeting other Jesuits in the Assistancy

The meeting itself was an intercultural experience for the participants who came from over twelve countries. Michael was only one of many who found the fraternity among the Jesuits the most striking part of the experience. Mark agreed, saying: ‘Seeing the many talents of the giftedness of the group made me hopeful for the future of the Society in the Assistancy’. Arun commented that the SBC was an opportunity to know and experience the Society and its mission.


Changing attitudes towards Islam

The scholastics brought much back from the meeting to their Jesuit communities. Mark, Arun and Michael found that their encounter with Islam challenged their prejudices that all Muslims were closed to engaging with Christians, and were negatively disposed towards them.

Arun came to see that ‘not all Muslims are terrorists, who promote only bloodshed and violence’. ‘There are so many around us who want to build a peaceful world’, he said.

Arun went on: ‘Dialogue and interaction with Muslims are possible. They are very much needed in our time to appreciate and to acknowledge the goodness in each other.’

Michael returned from the meeting saying it was a profound experience of encountering the very human face of Islam.

All the participants in the meeting were left to ponder the wisdom of Shafa Elmirzana’s story. As the Muslim mother replied to her son, the decision about who gets to heaven or hell is best left to God. Our business is to promote a just and peaceful society. We do that best by fostering and promoting interfaith relations.

Nico Lariosa sj