EDMONTON, Alta. -- It was a spontaneous and heartfelt greeting from the young man at the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton on a September day. He welcomed Donna Entz and Miriam Gross and thanked them for their work within his Muslim community.
“For a young Arabic man to say that to women he doesn’t know is quite amazing. I was touched by that” says Entz.
Entz and Gross say the young man’s hospitality was especially poignant because it came only days after a deadly attack in Libya. The attack – reportedly prompted by an anti-Islamic video – escalated religious tensions around the world.
Entz and Gross are with a project jointly supported by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Church Alberta. The goal is to build connections between the Mennonite and Muslim communities in North Edmonton.
The women work with newcomers in a variety of activities, including finding tutors from Mennonite schools to mentor immigrant students, and organizing small gatherings that bring Mennonites and Muslims together in social settings.
For Entz, it is a natural progression in a life-long commitment to learning about and working with Muslims. She returned to Canada in 2010, after 30 years in a Mennonite ministry in Burkina Faso, Africa.
“What they tell me as I get to know them here in Edmonton is they want to be part of this society” she says. “They’re relieved when someone tries to move closer to them culturally and even religiously. They don’t have to make the entire effort.”
Gross, who’s 21, grew up in a household where connecting with other cultures and faiths is valued. “At the mosque I identify myself as Christian,” she says. “Then I say I don’t want to sit at home and listen to what the media are telling me about Islam. I want to hear about Islam from Muslims.”
Mana Ali says by being open about their Christianity, and respecting Islam while learning about Muslim culture, Gross and Entz demonstrate a powerful message of welcome to immigrants. Ali came to Edmonton from Somalia 20 years ago, and works at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.
“This project gives hope in the community” she says. “It is inter-faith at the grassroots level, working with moms and kids who need help, sharing being human together.” Ali says the benefits work both ways. “It can also be scary for Canadians who have been here for generations and are seeing people who don’t look like them in their neighbourhoods. This helps break that barrier.”
At the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Entz and Gross have become familiar faces. After the service, they smile and share the traditional Islamic peace greeting with several women who stop to chat.
“They recognize something about me because I wear a long dress like them, but they also know there’s something different,” Entz says. “And they want to connect with me, with the mainstream in some way. These are the opportunities we have. It’s an amazing thing.”
Julie Bell is a senior writer with MCC Canada