Remember the “Ground Zero Mosque”? Here’s an interesting article about the Park 51 Islamic community center that generated so much controversy in 2010. The article presents an interesting case study in trying to communicate religious beliefs with a hostile audience. In this case that’s Muslims trying to communicate to the American public, but that could just as easily be churches trying to communicate to a disinterested community.
The money quote comes from 23-year-old Rashid Dar, the director of programs at Park 51, who grew up in Wisconsin:
“We are trying to be the Muslim voice, speaking about Islam to the broader American public,” Dar said. “If we don’t do it, somebody else will.”
If your church isn’t communicating to your community, somebody else will. If you’re not explaining what Christianity means to you, someone else will do it for you. And you probably won’t like what they have to say (one particularly heinous example comes to mind).
The article goes on to describe the do’s and don’ts of this type of communication.
“For the next two hours Dar talked about the history of Islam and its prophets; he recounted ancient Muslim parables and repeatedly emphasized that there is only one God and that this God is the creator of everything. … It is abundantly clear that Dar is educated and eloquent, but his speech sounded rehearsed, monotonous, and didn’t touch on any of the students’ questions.”
In summary, don’t go on and on about your beliefs with explanations that don’t engage or even make sense to your audience. And for goodness sake answer their questions.
“I shuddered as [Hanadi] Doleh [Park 51's program coordinator] talked to this group of privileged students. The emotional response her stories evoked left the most lasting impression. The Islamic high school she attended was closed for two months after 9/11. For the remainder of the school year the students were escorted there by police because people spit and threw pork chops at them. “I was hearing people whisper about me on the subway,” Doleh told me. “‘I bet she doesn’t even speak English. She probably got married when she was 14.’ I’m just not an uneducated person,” she added. Surprisingly, when I expressed being upset hearing about her experience, Doleh was quick to defend her fellow citizens. “It was a very emotional time for Americans. Especially New Yorkers.”
In summary, tell a story. Doleh’s story cuts to the heart of the American experience. She communicates little of her religious beliefs, but speaks volumes about the cultural hurdles that Muslims face in America. Let’s be clear: Doleh isn’t really communicating about religion. But she’s paving the way by addressing cultural issues. Sometimes before we can talk about God we first must address the roadblocks that inhibit the entire conversation.