Stories of successful engagement between Catholics and Muslims are too few not to pass along one I heard about yesterday at a conference called "Catholic-Muslim Partnerships in Social Services."It concerned a program that brought Catholic and Muslim youths together in Staten Island, N.Y. - a locale where Catholics' distrust of Muslims led a parish to cancel plans for a mosque to find a home in a former convent.Gayle Murphy, a CYO administrator, described how Catholic and Muslim kids took turns cleaning each other's houses of worship together. They worked an enormous vacuum in the mosque, and dusted statues in the church. Afterward: pizza.To get to that point, Murphy had to overcome the fears of parents who were concerned about sending their children to the mosque. Murphy, who participated in CYO activities as a child and became involved as an administrator after her husband died a decade ago, said she brought the parents to the mosque. It was "an eye-opener," she said, when the imam explained that "not all Muslims act in the way of 9/11 terrorists." The young folks also worked in a church soup kitchen, and collected enough canned food in advance to send everyone home with some.The conference, in which I participated, was held at the Interchurch Center in Manhattan (coincidentally the home of Commonweal). Other social-service partnerships in the Bronx and Harlem were discussed. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York and various mosques and Muslim organizations took part in these projects. (The Interfaith Center of New York organized the conference.)The idea of Catholics and Muslims working together toward social justice is a worthy one. As George Dardess and Marvin Krier Mich put it in their new book, In the Spirit of St. Francis and the Sultan: Catholics and Muslims Working together in the Common Good (Orbis), there is a good deal of common ground between the two religions' outlook on social justice. And there is something to be said for taking concrete actions together rather than just talking about improved relations.I hope that stories such as this one from Staten Island will be told; they are needed. Catholics need to understand what the church actually teaches concerning Islam and relations with its adherents. Conservative Catholic media often muddle that. Catholic politicians run against mosques. Would that these actions speak louder than their words.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.