A Muslim Woman in the Pews
Posted by Jessica Coblentz on September 10, 2009
As a college student I often slipped into the refuge of the campus’s large Mission church for a few moments of quiet during the middle of the school day. After entering the sanctuary through the rear doors on one particular occasion, I saw a Muslim woman in hijab sitting in one of the distant pews near the front altar. “That’s great,” I thought to myself, “I am glad that people of all faiths feel welcome in the space.” Although it was a Catholic university, it was not uncommon to encounter students of various faith traditions, especially Muslim students. Furthermore, the school’s location in California’s Silicon Valley meant that the communities around the school were rich with religious diversity. Perhaps this was a local community member who slipped in the Mission on a mid-day walk.
As I walked further into the church, however, I realized that this was not a veiled Muslim woman, but rather a rosary-praying Catholic wearing a mantilla, a type of veiling worn by the women of my faith during the pre-Vatican II era when the institution required us to cover our heads. While my initial assumption about the faith of this woman made sense in context–veiled Muslim students heavily out-weighed the mantilla-wearing Catholic population at the university–I was embarrassed. My reaction suddenly seemed incredibly shallow. I was embarrassed that I had so quickly responded to the prospect of a Muslim woman in a Catholic sanctuary with a sense of pride for my own faith community: “Isn’t it so great that we west-coast Catholics are so progressive and inclusive and welcoming that people of other faiths feel welcome in our sacred spaces!”
The fact is, there is not much I do intentionally to make people of other faiths feel more welcome in the Catholic community. The institutional church often does a pretty bad job of it this too. And in an increasingly globalizing world, isn’t this more important–and more possible–than ever? As we recognize the 8 year anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, I hope to spend some time thinking about inter-religious relations in our international, national and local Church. What are we doing to foster peace, collaboration, and love in our relationships with other faith traditions? What can we do, and what can I do?
Jessica Coblentz graduated from Santa Clara University in 2008, and recently began her Master of Theological Studies degree at Harvard Divinity School where she is studying “Women, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion” and Roman Catholic theology. Follow her writing on the web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.