Catholics and Muslims: Too Close for Comfort?

Having been in the hospital on and off for the last few months, even thinking once that I might die, I found myself, as many people do, delving deeper into my faith.

I was raised by my parents with a strong Protestant faith, but have long felt abandoned by increasingly liberal Protestant churches -- open for worship one hour per week; while concurrently promoting the hottest young Christian singers to draw in the young folks.  That’s my take on it; but I know many would disagree.

So when I recently attended a Catholic Mass and realized there were people talking about Jesus Christ every day of the week, I loved it!  At this particular church, everything seemed centered on Jesus.  (One of the Protestants' biggest gripes with Catholics involves what is commonly called “Mary worship,” but I decided to let the chips fall where they may and focus on the risen Savior.  Mary could come along for the ride; after all, she is blessed among women.)

I knew also that the diocese of my area was adamantly supporting their sanctuary city, and that I had personally watched Catholic Charities busing in immigrants for years, most of them Muslim.  However, a Catholic friend convinced me I was attending Mass for Jesus's sake, and suggested I ignore my larger social concerns.

So I continued on the path of the independent Christian…there are many of us…feeling betrayed by organized religions, but popping into whatever church has an unlocked door to kneel in front of the universal sign of the crucified Christ.

You’ll soon see the great irony is that these events happened to me just days after I’d written about parishioners who’d complained about a priest for warning his students against Islam.  Thus begins my account, and I have chosen not to give specifics:

I missed Mass nearby, so I decided to seek out a more distant historical church that a Google search told me had Mass at noon.  It exuded classical 19th century ambience, and thrust up quintessential spires trying to reach heaven.  As I pulled into the parking lot, I wondered if the Internet was mistaken on the Mass time.  I was ten minutes early; but there were only about five cars.  I tugged on all the doors I could find, but they were locked. The day was dark and dreary, and a light rain began to make everything feel surreal.

The main Catholic church, which I’ll call Fill-In-The-Name, was connected by a corridor to another building that faced the church. Above that large building it read: “Fill-In-The-Name Parish Center.” As a last resort to find people, I opened the door beneath the sign. I thought it strange it was made of purely heavy solid metal. I walked in and saw a large room filled with about 200 plastic chairs and tables. A shabbily dressed old man sat dozing against the wall.

“Excuse me, I thought Mass was supposed to start at noon, but the church doors all seem to be locked.” I said.

“What are you looking for?” he asked, looking confused. He spoke without an accent and looked like anybody’s grandpa… on a bad day.

Just then a woman in street clothes came out of nowhere and asked me what I was looking for. She didn’t speak with an accent either, but she too was confused and explained they had nothing to do with “that” -- pointing to the connected main church.

“But that’s crazy; it’s all part of the same building.  How could you not know what I’m talking about?”  I asked.

Just then, the man stood up and declared:  “Take her to the sister!”

“This way!”

“Oh thank goodness,” I said, “A sister! She can help me.”

“Well,” the man said quietly, “she’s our sister.”  At this point I seriously wondered if all three of these people were related.  There were no clues to warn me of what I would find.

After walking down long corridors I was ushered into an office that was filled to the brim with books -- all embossed with gold Arabic writing.  In the middle of the room sat a dark Muslim woman dressed all in black, with only her face visible.  She stood quickly and faced me:  “What do you want?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather.  “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m just here for Mass and I must have stumbled into the wrong place.  You see, all the church doors were locked.”

She walked quickly towards me and kept asking with a thick accent, “Where did you come from? What door did you come in?”  I told her but it wasn’t good enough.  “Show me,” she said.  She never smiled once.  With her demeanor questionable at best, I was becoming very uncomfortable holding a hymn book and a Bible with a cross prominently hanging around my neck.  I pointed.  “That door.”  She then had me follow her to it as quickly as possible.  Before I knew it we were outside.  I was looking up at the “Parish Center” sign over the door as she said, “This door is supposed to be locked!  We have a school here.  We just rent.  I don’t know anything about that church, but there’s a man there who can tell you.”  She disappeared after pointing to another scruffy-looking man hurrying across the parking lot with a box.

I approached him and said, "Wow.  This is all very odd.  Is there a Mass here at noon?”

“I think so; there’s one door unlocked to the main church over there…”

“So… am I to understand that the entire large building connected to the Catholic Church is a Muslim school?” I asked.  He rolled his eyes and kind of whispered, “Yeah. It sure is.”  He confirmed “Fill-In-The-Name” church rented it to them.  “It’s all pretty strange,” he said before scurrying away.

I went into “Fill-In-The-Name” church and there were a handful of people sitting in a pew.  The inside was gorgeous; the stained glass windows breathtaking.  A woman standing at the end of a pew looked annoyed and asked, “Are you here for confession too?”  I told her no, I was there for Mass.

“Oh I think they have that in the little room at the top of the stairs,” she said pointing away from the sanctuary.

She appeared to be a regular middle-class white woman, and I asked if she were a parishioner at this church.  She was.  Still stymied, I asked her if it was true that half the church was rented as a Muslim school.  She said it was.

So… I’d come all that way and was going to have Mass in a little room far away from the historic sanctuary… but looking out onto an apparently large Muslim school?  A school I had mistakenly entered, felt interrogated in, and escorted from in a not-so-friendly manner?  No way.

“Forget it. Thank you.”  I said and headed for the door.

“Why are you leaving?” the woman shouted irreverently down the holy aisle.  “Because of them?” she asked pointing toward the school.

“No; because of Jesus Christ,” I answered.

“He’s over there, too!” she yelled, still pointing toward the school.

“No. He’s not,”  I retorted.  Muslims respect Jesus; but to me he is my Lord and Savior, the son of the living God.

She loudly condemned me:  “Oh you are terrible.  You are bad!  Those are nice and good people over there!”

“I didn’t say they weren’t,” I answered, “but my faith is not here.”

I contemplated how large that school was.  How many Muslims were being educated?

I realized I would never again feel comfortable walking into any Christian church just because it was labeled as such.  That large church was but a relic of the past.  There wasn’t really anyone there for Mass; only a handful of sinners looking to recite their sins.  In my memory now, they seem like a missing episode of The Twilight Zone… every day the clock strikes noon they are condemned to relive fighting each other to get into the confessional booth.

As for the Muslims, they’d better start collecting more Catholic churches and plastic chairs.  After all, they are growing “more than twice as fast as the overall world population.”

Susan D. Harris can be reached at