On the fourth Saturday of nearly every month, people gather at Hunter Presbyterian Church to learn more about one another or to enlighten others about themselves. Or maybe a little of both.
Regardless, at each meeting of the Christian- Muslim Dialogue group, people feel free to be themselves.
Established more than 12 years ago, the group tries to build understanding and respect where there might be too little. The more we know about our neighbors, the better we can respond to their needs, and they to ours.
At the next meeting, on Saturday, the documentary Welcome to Shelbyville will be shown and discussed. The film recently aired on PBS as part of its Independent Lens series. It spotlights a small town in Tennessee that in 2008 was trying to contend with demographic changes. In addition to dealing with a growing Hispanic population, residents were struggling to accept an influx of Somali refugees who were seeking work at Tyson Foods. Grappling with the traditional black-white racial issues was pushed to the back-burner.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
The changes did not encourage a sense of kumbaya.
Jobs were tight locally. Nationally, a black man was about to become commander-in-chief. And the country was still fearful of Islam, the Somalis' religion.
Still, some people and some agencies were trying to tackle those problems to bring about a peaceful evolution.
Mohamed Nasser of Nicholasville, who co-founded the Christian- Muslim Dialogue group with Dr. John Parks of Lexington, thinks the film could be another catalyst to open minds.
"It is about informing people and working with other people," Nasser said. "Islam is nothing new."
Shahied Rashid, an imam and trustee at Masjid Bilal Ibin Rabah, a mosque on Russell Cave Road, said he has participated in discussions across religious and cultural lines for decades. The Christian- Muslim Dialogue group, he said, has created a means of "sustained non- confrontational dialogue" for those who want to better grasp unfamiliar cultures.
"When people are demystified, their hearts seek to engage each other," Rashid said.
His wife, Ollie Rashid, a member of the group's steering committee, agreed.
"People are really open at these forums," she said. "They say what they need to say and try to share in order to enlighten others. It will be really open. It doesn't get brutal, but it gets expressed."
The meetings are not just about religion. Social and moral issues also are discussed.
A similar group Nasser helped form more than 20 years ago with Christians, Muslims and Jews was enthusiastic at first, but attendance waned.
"We didn't have an agenda," he said. "We would get together and talk. We were meeting with the same people and preaching to the choir."
When he helped form the Christian- Muslim Dialogue group, Nasser said, he planned topics and issues to be discussed, and that has been successful with new listeners, especially young people.
During the past couple of years, speakers have come from diverse backgrounds. "Each religion has something to offer," he said. "People are beginning to understand."
The message of Welcome to Shelbyville is in keeping with the group's mission, Ollie Rashid said.
"We just wanted more people to see it and get a feel for what is happening to immigrants coming into small towns," she said.
Jonathan Bialosky, an immigration lawyer and program director at Maxwell Street Legal Clinic, will lead the discussion after the 60-minute film.
Asked what visitors should take away from the Christian- Muslim Dialogue group meetings, Shahied Rashid said, "Guests are expected to walk away with a conscious awareness of our universal identity, which is 'human being.' Whether we are a Christian human being or Muslim human being, the common denominator is 'human being."
But if he has been involved in various dialogues for decades and many people are still fearful of Islam, why keep trying?
"Our duty is to deliver the message plainly, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong," the imam said. "Allah will ultimately decide between us concerning those matters in which we dispute."
In September and October, the group's meeting locations might change because of University of Kentucky football games at nearby Commonwealth Stadium. Usually the meetings are followed by a potluck and mingling, but there will be no food at Saturday's meeting because it is Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast during the day to teach patience and submissiveness to God.