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Recently I visited our nation’s capital. In between congressional office visits I ducked into the U.S. Botanic Garden on the National Mall. The conservatory’s tropical humidity and lush rainforest foliage provided welcome contrast to the chilly, overcast March day.

As I wandered among flowering vines, I turned a corner and was surprised to see a familiar face from Bismarck. The warm smile belonged to Rola Kanafani, who was visiting D.C. with her daughter and grandchild. I first met Rola at the Bismarck Muslim Community Center as a Tribune reporter, and have since gotten to know her through Bismarck Interfaith, a community group that organizes social events and service projects.

Encountering Muslim friends in our nation’s capital felt especially symbolic as it was Ash Wednesday, a day when many Christians display a visible symbol of faith. I still had traces of ash on my forehead, and Rola and her daughter both wore hijabs. As we conversed, we were surrounded not only by a garden symbolizing new life but by larger monuments to our country’s leaders who valued religious freedom.

Rola is married to Nadim Koleilat, a surgeon and founding president of BMCC. On Ash Wednesday four years ago Dr. Koleilat was disinvited by North Dakota House leadership from offering an opening invocation, which made national news. (He prayed in the Senate instead.) This incident was remembered earlier this month when several lawmakers protested a Hindu prayer in the North Dakota House.

When I asked Rola’s permission to tell this story, her response included an invitation to lunch and an upcoming gathering at BMCC. I was honored but not surprised. Since moving to North Dakota, the places I have felt the warmest welcome are Annunciation Monastery, while getting to know the Benedictine sisters, and the Bismarck Muslim Community Center, a gathering place for Muslims from wildly diverse regions of the world. Many of you have visited the monastery, but I will wager few have stopped by the BMCC.

To attempt a rough metaphor describing the BMCC community, imagine moving to a new town with only one Christian gathering place for worship that accommodated Russian Orthodox, Salvadoran Catholics, Scandinavian Lutherans, South Korean Presbyterians, white American evangelicals, Lakota Episcopalians, and African American Baptists under one roof. And those Christians not only befriend and welcome each other, but welcome anyone else from the community to gather and share a meal with them.

This type of beloved community is right here in our midst at BMCC, and it would do us well to learn from our Muslim neighbors’ example. Most of us in the dominant culture don’t think of North Dakota as diverse, but I have been invited into Bismarck homes to participate in both a seder (ritual Passover meal) and an iftar (fast-breaking meal during Ramadan). I’ve also eaten delectable Indian food prepared by a Hindu family.

Engaging in neighborliness and hospitality does not require anyone to abandon their identity or theological beliefs. In fact, interfaith gatherings only work when each participant is deeply rooted in their own tradition — and we come to understand our own traditions better through the eyes of others. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton credited his encounters with Buddhism and Hinduism for deepening his own Roman Catholic faith.

My hope is that here in Bismarck we can truly value religious pluralism, protected by the United States Constitution, and honor the central tenets taught by all major religions: love thy neighbor, and welcome the stranger. Then when you encounter someone who looks different from you on our National Mall, it may turn out they are no longer a stranger, but a friend.

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Ann Crews Melton is a writer and editor particularly interested in religion, identity and diversity. A Texas native, she is proud to call Bismarck home.

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