KELLER -- A neighbor can be a Muslim "and still be my friend," said Pastor Bob Roberts Jr. of NorthWood Church.
Roberts was surprised by the number of friends who showed up Sunday for the church's Building Bridges with Fellow Texans event.
"We had a goal of 1,000 Christians and 1,000 Muslims," he said. "We ended up with 1,500 Muslims and 1,000 Christians."
Folks were standing against the walls of the 2,000-seat sanctuary, and monitors were set up in the foyer, where at least 400 others stood, said Paul Schneider, a NorthWood spokesman.
Roberts said NorthWood had considered having the event on the previous Sunday, Sept. 11, but the Muslims helping organize the gathering asked to put it off for a week.
"The more we thought about it the more sense it made," Roberts said.
The 10th anniversary of 9-11 inspired NorthWood members to invite Muslims -- and Christians from other churches -- to their sanctuary. But making the Muslims feel uncomfortable would have defeated the purpose, Roberts said.
While 9-11 was mentioned during Sunday's gathering, it was certainly not the focus. Pastors and imams talked more about what Muslims and Christians have in common than their differences. Jokes were told -- one imam commented that the Dallas Cowboys needed divine intervention -- and congregants stood in unison to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and Texas Pledge of Allegiance.
"A young lady in a hijab sang the Star-Spangled Banner," Roberts said. "A combined choir of Muslim and Christian kids sang You Are my Sunshine."
Breaking down barriers
Building Bridges created a favorable environment for interaction between members of the faiths, Roberts said.
"We didn't just sit around and preach sermons," he said. "We talked together, laughed together, ate together and built relationships."
Such events are important "to break down the barriers between our faiths," said Imam Zia ul Haque of the Islamic Center of Irving. "It's important to teach people what we believe in and how we see ourselves."
Muslims see themselves as contributing citizens of this country, ul Haque said. Several Muslims proved that as they were leaving the building after the event ended.
NorthWood members at a table near one door were signing up volunteers for Building Community, a service project in early October where 1,500 to 2,000 people are needed for major renovations at houses, schools, a park and a clinic in Haltom City and Keller.
Roberts said church leaders were surprised when Muslims wanted to sign up, and the project leaders asked him what to do.
"I said, 'Sign them up,'" he said.
NorthWood members signed cards to declare what activities they intend to take part in with Muslims, whether hosting multifaith dinners or volunteering for service projects, Schneider said.
Ul Haque said many good relationships began Sunday despite "friction" he heard about in connection with the event. He referred to aspersions cast against the meeting by the leader of a local ACT! for America chapter.
Dorrie O'Brien of Grand Prairie, a Tarrant County Republican Party precinct chairwoman, said the idea of Christians and Muslims making friends or having fun together is "repulsive and impossible."
O'Brien doubted that 1,000 Muslims would show up at the Keller church, because they've been told not to mix with Christians or Jews.
Obviously, she was wrong.
"I think there will be challenges whenever you try to build relationships," ul Haque said. "But we shouldn't be dissuaded just because of friction."
"What concerns me right now is that most Muslims have a view that evangelical Christianity doesn't respect them or value them," he said.
'Love all people'
Ul Haque hopes Christians will help Muslims adjust to American society and be tolerant meanwhile.
"We don't have to agree about our beliefs," he said. "There are differences in our understanding about God. We can agree to disagree and respect each other despite our differences."
Roberts said that it's important for society to accept religious freedom and that he has a problem with people who can't tolerate those differences.
"It used to be that faith was tribal and geographical," he said. "Now all religions are all places like never before, and they continue to multiply in nontraditional places. In America we have the chance to build a new model for what it looks like for people of faith to get along."
Roberts reminded Christians what the Bible says about loving your neighbor as yourself.
"I think to follow Jesus is to love all people," he said. "To isolate a people, reject them or denigrate them, there's nowhere in the scripture where Jesus approved of that or practiced it. If anything he pushed back really hard."
The popularity of the Gospel grew worldwide because "it's an inclusive message for the world and was meant to be shared with every person," Roberts said. "I wonder sometimes what book people are reading who call themselves Christians and yet demonize other people."
One of the most moving moments of the event was toward the end, when Roberts, speaking for Christians at NorthWood and other churches from Dallas and Saginaw, told the Muslims, "We love you."
After a standing ovation, a Muslim in the audience, Reyad Ghosheh of Allen, stood and replied to Roberts, "We love you too."
Online: Video of the event, www.northwoodchurch.org
Terry Evans, 817-390-7620