With Rev. Joe Zarro at a makeshift pulpit delivering his sermon under fluorescent lights and no air conditioning, nearly 100 United Church of the Valley faithful turned out for Sunday morning services Sept. 5 at Murrieta’s Shivela Middle School’s auditorium. The flock and their ad-hoc place of worship were testimony to tolerance and understanding.
But it was a special invitation, not the surroundings, that more acutely demonstrated United Church of the Valley’s message of openness and coexistence.
Despite Temecula Valley’s reputation as a hotbed of staunch conservative Christianity, and United Church of the Valley’s aging base (many who attended Sunday’s service appeared to be over 60), worshippers stood in applause when Rev. Zarro introduced his invited guest speaker and friend, Mahmoud Harmoush, a devout Muslim.
Harmoush has recently been in the media spotlight. He is imam at the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley. The group is working with the city of Temecula to begin construction of a mosque on Nicolas Road.
Not everyone in the community supports the mosque. On July 30, nearly 35 demonstrators rallied outside the Islamic Center to protest the mosque’s construction.
The mosque controversy here and nationally, as well as the impending 9/11 anniversary, along with the international anti-Islam rhetoric that has gained momentum in recent months, have prompted Rev. Zarro to help build bridges in the community.
One way to do that, Rev. Zarro said, is by promoting tolerance and understanding.
“I felt like the confluence of all those things makes this the perfect time to invite him to speak here,” Rev. Zarro said.
Following an opening hymn titled “Building Bridges,” the imam came to the pulpit. He told the audience that it was a privilege to be invited to the church.
“We are all worshipping today,” he said. “We are in the international arena of religious tolerance.”
Harmoush strived to convey to the audience that Christians, Muslims and Jews share similar beliefs.
“In Islam, Jesus is a revered prophet. We (Muslims) could not mention Jesus with saying ‘peace be upon him.’ We could not mention Mary without saying ‘peace be upon her,’” Harmoush said.
He also offered his interpretations of Islamic traditions, such as Ramadan and daily prayers. An informational flyer was made available for those interested: definitions for Allah, Islam, Nabi and Jihad were printed on it.
“Jihad in Islam: This Arabic word is widely misunderstood,” the flyer stated. “It means to strive against evil inclinations within oneself, to struggle to improve the quality of life in society and to stop injustices. It does not mean Holy War.”
Harmoush spoke to the issue of violence and stereotypes.
“Such acts do not come from a pious, sincere Muslim,” he explained. “We outright and unconditionally denounce violence and terrorism.”
The planned mosque was also addressed.
“If God wants, we will have the center,” Harmoush said, and he extended an invitation to the audience and the broader community to attend Open Mosque Day, Oct. 17 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley. The annual event, organized by the Shura Council of Southern California, promotes interaction with Muslim and non-Muslim community members.
Harmoush concluded his remarks by thanking the audience and Rev. Zarro.
“May God bless you all for this invitation,” he said.
As Harmoush moved away from the pulpit, the United Church of the Valley congregation stood in applause.
Later, following a moving sermon from Rev. Zarro in which he emphasized the importance of tolerance and living in peace with one’s neighbors, worshippers wandered over to Harmoush. They shook his hand. Some hugged him. And they thanked him for coming to their Sunday service.
Toni McAllister is SWRNN’s lifestyles editor. She can be reached at email@example.com or 951-234-0704. Follow her on Twitter at SWRNNaelife.