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How a Native Elder & a Muslim Found Spiritual Friendship at a Christian Celebration

By Raheel Raza


What a joy, to travel the way of the heart. ~ Rumi

The invitation came from the Centre for Christian Studies to be a presenter at their 130th Anniversary celebrations in Winnipeg. The evening’s theme was Diversity, Transformation, and Hope. I was to substitute for Joy Kogawa, a fine poet who could not make it. How could I fill her shoes!? When I heard the theme, though, I said yes.

The invitation was to be in dialogue with Stan McKay, a Native elder originally from Fisher River First Nation Reserve in northern Manitoba. As a child he attended Fisher River Indian Day School and the Birtle Indian Residential School. Stan’s adult life has been focused on teaching and spiritual guidance as a source of healing for individuals and for communities. He is known widely as a wise teacher and elder, striving to educate Canadians about the consequences of colonialism in Canada, especially the policy of assimilation and residential schools, and to bring healing to the deep harm caused to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike.

I left home, as ever, asking for signs. It was a beautiful, bright autumn day with a blue sky and cumulous clouds. Arriving at the hotel in Winnipeg, I was dumbstruck to see its telephone number – 1-204-786-7011. For Muslims, 786 is a numerical code for Bismillah, an Arabic word which means “I begin in the name of God,” a word with which we begin every prayer. In the hotel room the stationary was embossed with the word hope. Any trepidation I had about a new place, new people, or speaking without notes was allayed. I felt rejuvenated, anxious and hopeful all at once.

Reaching the hall, I was amazed at how many people I knew from my years of interfaith work across Canada. We hugged like old friends. Stan and I met privately in a room to connect. And connect we did. As tradition deems, I took Stan a gift of tobacco, giving it to him privately; he was so thrilled at the gesture that he told the audience. They were primarily women, mostly Christian, with a smattering of Native youth, and, I discovered later, some Muslims.

Stan McKay and Raheel Raza

Stan McKay and Raheel Raza

I took Rumi as my muse, and Stan brought a book of readings titled God is Red. I also took a CD of Sufi chanting which was played as people came into the hall. We were supposed to be in a facilitated dialogue. But as we sat facing each other and started talking, the 250+ audiencefaded away, and it seemed we were two souls speaking as one. Stan and I clicked heart-to-heart and shared ruminations, readings, and a new friendship.

Stan shared a story about dreams. Since first arriving in Canada, I have been fascinated with the Native ethos. In many ways it corresponds with the spiritual message of my own faith, so often drowned in the din of dogma. Native communities are very diverse, Stan observed, and while interfaith dialogue thrives, intrafaith conversation (where you talk to different communities within your own tradition) is sadly neglected. I had to tell him the same is true in our Muslim communities.

He asked me about diversity within the Islamic faith. He and the audience were both surprised as I explained the different denominations and sects within Islam they had never heard about. We agreed that unity does not mean uniformity and that diversity is a divine blessing. However we also agreed that people can’t be forced to ‘like’ each other and move into a group hug until our differences are recognized and respected.

I shared the following reading on diversity from Rumi:

Every war and every conflict between human beings

has happened because of some disagreement about names.

It is such an unnecessary foolishness,

because just beyond the arguing

there is a long table of companionship

set and waiting for us to sit down.

What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,

many jugs being poured into a huge basin.

All religions, all this singing, one song.

The differences are just illusion and vanity.

Sunlight looks a little different on this wall

than it does on that wall

and a lot different on this other one,

but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,

these time-and-space personalities,

from a light, and when we praise,

we are pouring them back in.

We shared our thoughts about transformation. Stan spoke of the painful experiences of colonization and the residential schools. The wounds have been deep, leaving anger and conflict in Native communities, especially among young people who have no way to channel their anger. He spoke about his own transition from anger to hope and peace. The key is recognizing that a wrong has been done in history; creating awareness of it; and then working towards forgiveness. The official movement for this in Canada is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on which I’ve served.

Jalal ad-Dīn Rumi

Jalal ad-Dīn Rumi

Stan told a wonderful story about a grandfather. He told his grandson, “Each of us has two wolves in our heart. One is a good, protective wolf. The other is a mean and violent wolf. The grandson asked, “Which wolf is stronger?” The grandfather replied, “The one you feed the most.” Wow. I am trying to share just such stories with my own grandsons, an old forgotten habit. They listen in fascination.

I shared how my life has been a journey of change and transformation. I am not the person I was 25 years ago, and much of my journey towards spirituality has been in Canada, where I find myself free to pursue the different paths that lead to the same Creator. Change is positive, Stan and I agreed. And since the world is changing so fast, if we want to be part of the larger change, we need to transform ourselves as well, welcoming both difficulties and blessings. Rumi says “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”

We spoke of hope and I shared that I’m an eternal optimist. For me the glass is always half full. Stan works in healing circles and shared his hopes. The concept of circle brought us all together. The logo of our host, the Centre of Christian Studies, is a circle. Aboriginal people are very circle oriented, and Sufis embrace the circle as the circle of life. Our connections grew stronger as we talked. Both of us were able to share the difficulties of our spiritual journeys and the riches we encounter on the way. We were honoured to be able to showcase the spiritual messages from our different traditions.

After an hour, we stopped for questions, and the conversation continued. We could have talked all night!