For all practical purposes, it looks like a classic church potluck dinner at Cole Community Church. Great big pans of food send out scintillating aromas on long tables; a warm buzz of conversation and laughter greets guests as they arrive.
This, however, is not your average church dinner. This is a Peace Feast.
Half of the guest list is Muslim and the other half is Christian, and the purpose of their gathering is to talk about their faith — the deep, abiding, grounded sense of faith — that shapes their lives. Not to convert, not to argue, not to convince — but to share. To talk — and to listen.
Laura Armstrong: “ … ‘This is who I am, this is my faith, this what I believe. Share with me about your faith. And where do we meet?’ And if there are questions, we’d love to answer them.”
The meat is lamb, prepared in a way special to Islam called halal — killed by hand and blessed. A few of the women are dressed modestly in a long dress and hijab. Most of the guests are strangers to each other, but on a piece of paper on small tables, the size for conversation, are suggested questions to get conversations rolling: What are ways you express your love for God? What does it look like to love your neighbor? What expressions of Christianity (to the Muslims) do you appreciate most? What expression of Islam (to the Christians) do you appreciate most?
Nick Armstrong: “Peace Feasts are about building bridges and dismantling the walls of fear and suspicion.”
• • •
The idea for the feasts originated with Nick and Laura, who, compelled by their faith, spent 23 years working in Indonesia, which is a hugely Muslim culture. Nick did and taught community development for nonprofits, and Laura was a teacher and later principal of a private, international Christian school.
When they returned to Boise in 2013, wondering what they were going to do, they looked to their experience working and living in different cultures. As a ministry of Cole Community Church, they formed Glocal Community Partners — the word is a combination of “global” and “local” — to train volunteers who want to help refugees settle in Boise.
Laura: “To build friendships; to really come alongside these newcomers as Boiseans, and say, ‘Hey, I will help you navigate what it’s like to be here in the U.S.’
“I think that was heavy on our hearts, having done transitions before to Indonesia, knowing what it’s like to move into a totally new culture. We don’t have all the trauma behind us that some of these people as refugees have, and it was traumatic (enough) for us to make that move. …
“So, (we were) just seeing that need for how we can welcome the stranger, which is very much a Biblical part of our faith. A big strong part of our faith, too, is we welcome those into our community.”
Because such a high percentage of refugees are Muslim, Peace Feasts grew out of the volunteer trainings. Partnered with a national organization called Peace Catalyst Inc., the feasts usually include about 20 specially invited people at a dinner. Thanksgiving was their largest by far — 200 Glocal volunteers and their refugee friends, people from Cole Community Church and the Islamic Center of Boise — all sharing a gigantic Thanksgiving feast.
Nick: “The backdrop of (Peace Feasts) is that … if you look at Muslims and Christians together as one group, it’s more than half of the world’s population. If we think of … moving toward peace within our world, then Muslim/Christian relations are just vital for that.
“This is just a small expression from us to build relationships and friendships and something that will be at least symbolic of that peace.”
• • •
Nick grew up LDS but eased out of the church with teenage questions and doubts. He started a career at Hewlett-Packard as a buyer and scheduler in the disc memory division. Eventually, he met a group of people studying the Gospel of Luke.
Nick: “I was just very impressed with the need to engage with the world — and especially with those who are disadvantaged, marginalized, poor. (I wanted to) contribute in some way to helping. And I didn’t know what that meant.”
Laura grew up in Ketchum as part of an athletic, middle-class family. She had no desire to go overseas. Ever, she says. Her world view was quite small until she went on a short-term missionary project to Argentina in college.
Laura: “My eyes were opened to a different kind of world, the poverty, just the way people lived.”
The two met through mutual friends as Laura was doing her first year of teaching and Nick was finishing his MA in Biblical studies. They dated, got engaged, married — and two weeks later moved to Philadelphia, where Nick got his MBA with an emphasis in economic development for developing nations.
Nick: “We always joked that our experience in Africa was less of a cultural shock than our move from Idaho to Philly.”
To complete his MBA, Nick and Laura, went to Senegal where Nick documented how a new well affected daily life.
Laura: “(The village) was in the middle of the desert, but because of these wells, they were producing these beautiful gardens where they had never been able to produce food for their own village. That was incredible to watch, to learn part of that process.”
The experience catalyzed their desire to do more work internationally. When they went to Indonesia, Nick’s work was helping villagers define their own vision for a better life — as opposed to coming into a community and trying to “fix” things.
Nick: “It’s all about trying to help them discover what their own gifts and talents are and to utilize their own assets … to realize their dreams.”
At one point, the impoverished island of Sumba was facing a famine. Initially, Nick’s work, at the request of a local church, was to keep people from starving — delivering rice, oil, staples. But after that, Nick helped the villagers look at what it would take to prevent another famine. They decided to dig wells, after creating a process for deciding how and where to dig. The villagers committed their sweat equity — hand digging through 90 feet of volcanic rock — and they decided how the water would be managed and used.
Normally, water was available in the bottom of a very deep ravine five miles from the village. In the dry season, there were three pools: the upper was for drinking water, the lower two for washing clothes and bathing.
Nick: “So they would have to take that trip twice a day to get their daily water, because you couldn’t carry that much water on your back. From the time you were 6 or 7 years to however old, they would carry water. You can imagine the difference — the change that took place in the community after they had a well and they no longer had to take that journey.
Laura: “Kids could be in school for longer parts of the day.”
Within six months of the wells being put in, people were also growing their own vegetables, which previously had been enormously expensive.
Nick: “It transformed the whole village.”
That kind of community development is also Nick’s faith as well.
Nick: “Living out our faith. The way we look at it, (we are) being a sign of that which Jesus was bringing. He was bringing good news — and (for us) to be a sign of that good news is an invitation for others to join in. It is about caring and loving people and meeting people where they’re at. …
“We don’t come in to another culture, another community, another village, possessing God or possessing Jesus and basically transferring our faith to somebody else. There’s an assumption that God is already there, already working.”
One of the biggest projects Nick worked on was in a region called Aceh (pronounced Ah-chay) after the tsunami in 2004. More than 230,000 people were killed, the worst natural disaster in recorded history, Nick says; 180,000 people were killed in Aceh.
Nick: “Almost everyone you talked to lost somebody. So in the midst of that kind of devastation … beyond counting, I experienced incredible expressions of hospitality from people in Aceh. We were there initially for emergency response, but that morphed into a rehabilitation project where we were helping them build homes in different areas in Aceh — 1,100 homes were built (in four years).”
Both Christians and Muslims worked side by side during the disaster relief and rebuilding.
Laura: “For us, a lot of times, we try to find commonalities and ways we can work together. Aceh was a beautiful example of that … It was such a beautiful picture because that doesn’t always happen in Indonesia; there’s fear there, too, (and) separation at times. (But) it was like, yeah, these people are hurting … What do we need to do, how can we help? We can do that together.”
• • •
Laura and Nick were in Indonesia during 9/11. It was a defining moment.
Laura: “There was a … bomb threat at the Christian school (where I worked), but the Muslim workers at our school and our neighbors were like, ‘You don’t need to worry, we’ll protect you.’”
Nick: “To get perspective, too, in all of Indonesia at that time, there’s 200 million Muslims — and out of all of the cells throughout Indonesia that were considered extremist, there were maybe 50-100 people involved. It was a very, very small minority. …
“(Terrorism) was a total misrepresentation of their faith. … All the Muslims that I knew would consider Islam a religion of peace and one that required you love God and love neighbor.”
Laura: “My biggest thing with the people who have problems with or who are afraid of Muslims — what we try to say is: Get to know a person who is Muslim. Many of the refugees that are coming (to the U.S.) are Muslim — but they’re fleeing terrorism. Who are we to say we shouldn’t be welcoming them to a land that was built on welcoming people who were fleeing persecution or issues or whatever?”
Nick: “That needs to be said with the acknowledgment that we do need security. … We can have both. We can be the kind of nation that we were meant to be, that we were built on; we can have the welcoming of strangers — and have the security.”
Nick points to something like the 2012 Aurora, Colo., shooting that killed 12 people in a movie theater to get a different perspective.
“The (Indonesians are asking me), ‘Nick, what are those Christians thinking about? Why are they killing innocent people?’ I say, ‘Wait! Someone who follows Jesus doesn’t do that.’
“I think the same kind of thing is happening with Muslims. (They’re saying), ‘Wait, wait, wait. (Acts of terrorism are) not my faith. That’s not what I believe.’”
Laura: “When people say (Muslims) all want to kill us, I want to say: Who have you heard that from? What is your source? And have you ever met a Muslim and asked them what is their world view?
“For us … it’s always bringing it back to relationship. …
“That’s the thing for me: Meet someone who is Muslim. Ask them these questions. Dialog about it.”
And now there are Peace Feasts.
• • •
Nick: “One of (my) guiding passages for (Peace Feasts) is I Peter 3. It basically talks about … (sharing) the hope that’s in us with respect and gentleness. Oftentimes respect and gentleness is not a dominant feature of today’s discourse. And that’s, I think, foundational to being able to understand each other.”
Over the clinking of forks, conversations mingle: What do you believe God expects of you here on Earth? What do you wish people/the community understood about your faith?
Nick: “Especially with the Islamic faith, Jesus is part of their dialogue. There’s a difference between a Christian and Muslim understanding of Jesus, but there’s definitely a commonality in terms of Jesus being in the Koran, being a revered prophet.
“Why start out with polemics? Let’s start off with bridge building; start out with the things that are common, that we can talk about and understand. Let’s build understanding that way.”
When dinner is over, there is no conclusion, no summary, no lecturing, no persuasion. Instead, hugs, take-home plates of leftovers. Friendship, perhaps, or at least openness; laughter lingering in the air.
Nick: “All people are fundamentally the same; we’re all made in God’s image. That’s a premise of our faith. National boundaries don’t define who we love or who is our neighbor. Our neighbor is everyone in need. And everyone has needs.”
Laura: “God calls us to love others, to love our neighbors, to love our enemies as ourselves. That’s very much Biblically based.
“I think being here, with Muslims, that’s our commonality. We all want to love others and it’s God at work in us. …We try to find commonalities, and ways we can work together.”
Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, firstname.lastname@example.org, @IDS_Photography Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives by what, how and why they do things. Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman. com.
Want to join a Peace Feast?
Email Laura Armstrong, email@example.com or Quratulain Landis, firstname.lastname@example.org.