In a time when Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are under attack from religious extremists, adherents to both faiths are working together to create greater unity in their communities.
In November 2015, the General Board of Church and Society worked with local church leaders to facilitate an event that brought 30 Christians and 30 Muslims together for training and dialogue at a youth conference hall in Jalingo, Taraba State.
Seventy-five percent of the United Methodists attending were from northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram has done significant damage, reported the Rev. Ande Emmanuel, a GBCS field organizer there. In that region, churches have been attacked on Sundays, and at least 50 United Methodists have died because of the violence, he said.
"It's not all Muslims attacking all Christians. It's a very small extremist sect of Muslims," the Rev. Clayton Childers, GBCS director of annual conference relations, said. "They are attacking Muslims as well as Christians. They don't like anybody who (does not hold) their extremist perspective."
Emmanuel has been working in areas affected by Boko Haram's attacks on Christians and moderate Muslims. Childers said Emmanuel has been "building bridges between the Muslim and Christian community in various settings, especially where United Methodists are strong."
The Nigeria Episcopal Area has three annual conferences, which are home to about 458,000 United Methodists. Half of the nation's 170 million people are Muslim and 40 percent are Christian.
According to the Rev. Neal Christie, assistant general secretary for education and leadership formation at GBCS, the agency's long-term relationship with churches in Nigeria helped make the most recent peace-building efforts possible.
"More than a decade ago, we started doing Social Principles training in Nigeria," he said. "We've always received a very warm welcome there. We've spent a lot of time focusing on conflict-resolution skills, to build bridges where there have been some significant differences in opinion."
Childers has visited Nigeria four times and spoke at the November event, offering a lesson about "the biblical models of reconciliation and peacemaking."
Building bridges, trust
"This particular event was intentionally designed ... to talk about our respective faiths and how they support peace and community rather than the more violent passages that can be found in the Koran and our scriptures," Childers said.
"We had 22 imams participate," he said. "These are leaders in the Muslim communities, like pastors. We had three or four Muslim women, which is a huge deal."
Childers said the support the event received has led him to believe this may be "a turning point. I've been working here 15 years and out of all of the events I've led, this is the most exciting."
As United Methodists continue to partner with those around the world, Childers said he thinks it is important "to have a broader vision of what's going on in Nigeria."
Christie said the event brought people of different faiths together and helped them have a deeper understanding of one another.
"What can we do given the rise of religious misunderstanding in the forms of violence that are happening? Let's start talking more intentionally about who we are as Muslims and who we are as United Methodists," he said.
Emmanuel said the event reminded him that "ignorance of what another religion believes can [create] suspiciousness and religious intolerance.
"I have learned that interfaith dialogue, most especially among Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, can promote religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence among adherents of different religions."
During the event, Childers said Christians visited mosques, and a Catholic priest invited Muslims to visit his church.
"This, I think, opened people's minds," he said. "We wanted to challenge the rhetoric of hatred and violence and build opportunities and bridges between these communities."
Building trust is crucial to bringing peace, Christie said. "We have Muslim imams who trust us because we have been in their communities. They come to our Social Principles training."
Christie said the groups spent time "talking about the myths and truths" of each religion. They also addressed social issues that affect people of both faiths.
Addressing these misunderstandings and finding common ground can be truly lifesaving, Emmanuel said.
"Creating a sense of community among Christians and Muslims in Nigeria will not only bring peace and development but will also save the lives of many that are being killed almost on a daily basis as a result of religious violence in Nigeria," he said.
To spread the information shared, the group recorded the November training sessions. Leaders now are taking those DVDs to churches and mosques to further dispel fears and encourage people to work together.
"The more we talk to each other, the potential for violence is reduced," Emmanuel said.
Extra care was taken to ensure that lessons uncovered during the training could be implemented in the communities of those who attended, Childers said. The agency usually groups participants with people they don't know. For this event, the organizers specifically put people together based on location.
"We wanted people to join together with Muslims and Christians in their own towns and small groups," he said. "Each group prepared a plan of action for when they returned to their homes."
Emmanuel said the groups, based on five regions, left the training with ideas about how "to engage (their) community at the grassroots level through one-on-one interfaith peace building and conflict transformation advocacy within their region. And we will follow [up] on this with a dialogue meeting in each, which will bring people from the community each region is working with."
Despite the violence that takes place in Nigeria, Christie said the church continues to do important work.
"The church is vibrant, alive, growing in number, spiritually healthy and increasingly engaged with its social reality. That is what is needed to bring change," he said.
Emmanuel called for people in The United Methodist Church to align their lifestyles more fully with the messages of peace they preach.
Stand for peace, justice
"As United Methodists, we can stand for peace by preaching for peace and acting for peace. The truth is that many United Methodists preach peace but fail to act peace," he said. "If we can accompany our preaching with action, we can promote peace in the entire world. United Methodists can stand for peace by standing for justice, justice for all people; as the saying goes, ‘Peace is not only the absence of violence but (also) the presence of justice.'"
Christie said he hopes churches and conferences in the United States will be inspired to develop long-term relationships with those in Nigeria. He believes a combination of justice and mercy ministries, created in partnership, will be key to effecting positive change.
"Make the commitments for mercy ministry boldly," he said, "but also with a rigorous commitment; make some steps to committing to some form of social justice ministry," he said. "Making that investment for justice just as we make an investment for mercy, I think that's the need in Nigeria.
"We have to create new systems and new habits, and that's what we're trying to do. Justice and relationship – that's what's going to solve the causes of conflict between Muslims and Christians."
Emily Snell is a young-adult freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes regularly for Interpreter and other publications.