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How St. Paul’s Example Guides Me in Mumias, Kenya

For a recent international day of peace, Anglican Development Services, Western Region, invited me to share some thoughts on fostering interfaith dialogue for global peace and harmony. It was a privilege to converse with Hajj Abdi Wafula Swaleh, the regional chairman for the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.

The global revival of faiths is now a well-discussed phenomenon in religious studies. Today, these processes appear in various forms worldwide and are caused by a variety of factors. The social impact of this new religious vitality gives rise to competition for public space in which religions are now engaged with each other, and with the secular society.

The present awakening of various religions and their demand for presence and recognition in the public sphere defies earlier assumptions that enlightenment and modernization would eventually relegate religion to the private sphere.

Although Kenya is a secular state with constitutionally enshrined freedom of worship, religion continues to be present in the public sphere, functioning as a key framework for communal life.

Today, it is a common sight to find street preachers engaged in open-air rallies in Mumias, Western Kenya, posters on walls of buildings, and music with religious messages booming through public-address systems in public spaces. The Muslim call to prayer and outreach and revival night vigils are a common phenomenon in Mumias.

Thus, in Mumias, religious diversity is manifest in various ways and Muslims and Christians exist cheek by jowl, mutually affecting and influencing each other in manifold ways.

In many African societies, members of the same household belong to various strands of Christianity and Islam without conflict or contradiction. Christians cooperate with Muslims in trade, education, health, and politics, among other realms.

Undoubtedly, Christians and Muslims also compete for adherents. Sometimes, such competition takes violent twists, forcing the intervention of law enforcement.

Since the 1980s, this claim on the public space by religious actors is remarkably strong in East Africa.

To illustrate, religious leaders in East Africa in general and Kenya in particular played a critical role in demanding a new democratic dispensation from the 1990s.

During this period, individual religious leaders and civil society, with support from the international community, led the movement to demand the introduction of multiparty democracy and a new constitution.

This reflection, therefore, examines how faith actors could engage in dialogue with each other in order to contribute to global peace and harmony. I speak as a Christian leader serving in a region with a strong Islamic presence.

The importance of building relationships with members of other faiths is based on some premises: They are our neighbors, coworkers, and sometimes relatives. They are fellow human beings and fellow citizens. Relationships are essential for general social well-being. As Christians, we want to share our faith, but this can only be done in the context of positive relations.

We have some examples from the Bible that we could emulate in developing coexistence. In Romans 12:18, Paul writes: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Paul’s context is pagan, pluralistic, and sometimes anti-Christian. Similarly in our plural contexts, we must learn to live together with our differences. Sometimes we must seek compromise and look for ways in which we can work together for mutual benefit.

Building interfaith dialogue also enhances the offering of a respectful Christian witness. In Acts 17:16-34, we find Paul’s Christian witness in Athens. He learned about the context by walking around, observing their pagan religion. He also engaged in friendly conversation and responded to their invitation to speak.

In engaging in interfaith conversations, we must strive to look for common ground. Paul noted that the Athenians were “religious” and worshipped “an unknown god,” as he quoted from their poets. We should also affirm our common beliefs about God, Jesus, and ethics, and avoid getting tied down by controversial topics. However, we must also speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Paul shared the gospel, giving new and strange information, but building on familiar concepts (e.g., “We are his offspring”).

In our religiously diverse communities, fostering dialogue is a must.  We must exercise the qualities of patience, perseverance, passion, and prayer.

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