A “Goode” Day for Religious Pluralism: Interfaith Delegation visits Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA)
Prior to the swearing-in of the 110th Congress, Representative Virgil Goode (R-VA) issued an inflammatory statement criticizing incoming Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), a Muslim, for choosing to use the Qur'an, Islam's Holy book, at his unofficial swearing-in ceremony as a member of the House of Representatives. This statement, along with his remarks suggesting that an increase of Muslims in our country constitutes a danger, led to a petition campaign asking Mr. Goode to revisit his remarks. More than 8,000 signed the petition.
The following reflection of that visit was written by Vince Isner, director, FaithfulAmerica [http://www.faithfulamerica.org/.
Washington, January 30, 2007 – High on the wall of Congressman Virgil Goode's D.C. office, just as he had noted in his now famous letter to constituents, was a framed poster stating "In God We Trust."
High on the opposite wall a television played Fox News, most of it centered around the war in Iraq.
Below, as our small delegation of religious leaders took their seats, I recalled the statement from Goode's letter in response to newly elected Muslim representative Keith Ellison's decision to use a Qur'an for his unofficial swearing-in. "When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Quran in any way." Speaking on the subject of immigration, Goode added, "...if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran."
I introduced the delegation: With me were the Rev. Greg Anderson, a Baptist Minister from Virginia's 5th District, the Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell from the National Council of Churches, Michael Kelly from the Islamic Society of Central VA, Mohamed Elsanousi of the Islamic Society of North America, and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the Islamic Society's National Director.
We got right down to business. "We come bearing gifts," I began as I handed Mr. Goode the binder containing a petition with 8,000 signatures from concerned persons across the nation. "It is a gift, because these signatures represent people who believe in the power of your words to hurt or to heal. We have come to share what we believe is an opportunity for you to help lead the way in promoting a season of understanding around this issue."
Mr. Goode listened as each member of the delegation spoke their minds and hearts. Their points were compelling, from stating how disparaging remarks from an elected official fuels anti-American propaganda abroad, to reminding the Congressman that his words and actions must extend beyond his personal religious views. At one point I was struck by the irony of the moment when I could hardly hear Dr. Syeed, a wise and seasoned man of peace, because of a hair-loss commercial blasting out of the television overhead.
I also wondered if Congressman Goode could hear.
I soon got my answer. When we had finished, Congressman Goode leaned across his desk, thanked us for our remarks, and told us unequivocally that he stands by his earlier statement. "I didn't say anything that was untrue." Indeed, technically speaking, we were all in agreement. What he said could be factually supportable, and each is entitled to his or her own rights under our constitution. It was what was implied in the statements that raised such national concern - though apparently not uniformly throughout Goode's district, where letters of support outweigh letters of rebuke.
Congressman Goode then remarked that America is a nation where religious freedom abounds, "but if this nation had a majority of Muslims," he said, "I'm not sure it would be the case." Then gesturing to Dr. Syeed, he added, "Of course, if they were all more like you, I don't think there'd be a problem."
I held by breath. Privately I thought, "People used to say that about races of men and women… You're not like the rest of them. If more of them could be like you, we wouldn't have to worry. Why, you're a credit to your race."
Yes, it could have gone badly. But it didn't.
Instead, it became both a kind gesture and Holy moment, because Mr. Goode was sincere in his compliment, and, in Dr. Syeed's wisdom, he – indeed all of us – understood that this is how seeds of understanding are planted.
Despite years of Mr. Goode's apparent preconceptions, misconceptions, misunderstandings, or whatever it is that causes barriers where bridges might otherwise be… despite these and even a blaring television overhead, they were no match for a chance to sit eyeball to eyeball with deep and loving people whose lives are a genuine expression of what they believe.
Perhaps this was one of the first times Congressman Goode has met a peace-loving, broad-minded Muslim who is far more like him than unlike him (though I hear he has had some friendly exchanges with Rep. Ellison) and we hope it won't be his last.
I closed our visit by sharing with the group about my friend Zufar, a Muslim from Pakistan who is now a citizen of the U.S. and lives in Virginia with his American-born wife – who happens to be Catholic. She is dying of ALS. (Mr. Goode immediately asked how she was doing – not feigned, but from a genuine sense of concern.) "Not well," I replied. What keeps her alive after five years battling the disease and what inspires me is the way in which Zufar cares for her day after day, year after year, with little respite. His abiding Muslim faith is one reason for his devotion to his wife, and yet he takes great joy when her Catholic friends come to visit, pray for her, hold her hand, and sing Christian songs. I told Mr. Goode, "When I am stressed and feel like being less than my best as a person, it is my Muslim friend who helps me to be a better Christian."
And so he does.
Perhaps the most hopeful outcome of our visit was that Mr. Goode said he would accept an invitation to attend a Muslim service or gathering. I suspect he will take some heat in his district back home for that, but imagine all of those faces he will meet – peace loving, broad-minded Muslims, like those in our little group, who love their country and wish the best for all Americans. Imagine that day when a leader on the world stage is confronted with the faces of all of those men, women, and children who understand that with hands open – and not clenched fists – we can nourish one another in wonderful ways.
That should be a very good day indeed.