Dena Nicolai works with refugees from different countries and faith traditions who have moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Pastor Jay Blankespoor’s congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, unexpectedly found themselves in friendship with the mosque down the street.
“We want to engage them as Christians,” said Nicolai. “We want to feel we’re well equipped to do that.”
But it isn’t easy. That’s why Blankespoor and Nicolai gathered in Montréal, Québec, with other members of the CRC who are part of Resonate Global Mission’s Journeying into Friendships Network—a community of learning for people who are committed to living out the gospel by building friendships with people of different cultures and faiths in North America and throughout the world.
The Time Muslims Brought Easter Lilies to Worship
The closest place of worship to Boston Square CRC’s red-brick building in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a mosque. Jay Blankespoor, who co-pastors the church alongside his wife, Elizabeth Vander Haagen, says that you can see the Islamic Center of Grand Rapids from the church’s door.
For the first 10 years of Blankespoor and Vander Haagen’s ministry at Boston Square CRC, the church and mosque had no interaction.
“But then the imam called us up one day and asked if he could come by,” said Blankespoor. “I was very nervous.”
Blankespoor invited the imam over to Boston Square CRC’s building. The two politely chatted—and then the imam asked Blankespoor if the Islamic Center could use Boston Square CRC’s basement for a community meal. They needed a space big enough to break fast during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.
Blankespoor told the imam he would need to consult with members of the church and get back to him. Could a church allow a mosque to use its building?
“We came down to the conclusion that it’s a good act of hospitality, it’s part of being a good neighbor,” said Blankespoor.
The Islamic Center didn’t take Boston Square CRC’s offer that time, but in the past few years, the two faith communities have been learning more and more about what it means to be a good friend and neighbor. Members from Boston Square CRC signed and delivered posters voicing support of the mosque’s neighborhood presence in the midst of rampant anti-Muslim rhetoric. They’ve learned about and observed the Islamic Center’s time of prayer.
During Christianity’s Holy Week in 2017, a member of the Islamic Center’s board called Blankespoor and asked if a few people from the mosque could join the church for Easter worship.
On Easter, Boston Square CRC had tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths for worship—but there were no Easter lilies. Not until the group from the mosque arrived.
“That’s the Sunday the Muslims provided Easter lilies for Easter worship,” said Blankespoor.
Since then, Boston Square CRC finally had the opportunity to open their space up for the Islamic Center’s community meal during Ramadan this year.
“Clearly God is doing something here and we are following that lead,” said Blankespoor.
But navigating friendship with people of different cultures and faith hasn’t been easy. It has been awkward. Nerve-wracking. Challenging. Full of more questions than answers about friendship and faith.
What It Means to Be a Friend
“What is real friendship?” asks Dena Nicolai.
Nicolai is employed by the Christian Reformed Churches of British Columbia to support refugees as they transition to life in Canada. She works under the staff umbrella of First CRC of Vancouver, whose building is right next to the bustling ISS of BC Welcome Centre, a hub for refugees and immigrants to access essential needs such as temporary housing, medical care, employment services, and English language training.
More than 600 newcomers walk through the center’s doors each day. They are First CRC of Vancouver’s neighbors, and thousands more newcomers are settling throughout the city.
“We have a lot of refugees coming from a lot of different countries and they’re moving into different neighborhoods,” said Nicolai. “People in our churches are interacting with refugees and people of other faiths, and they may not always know it.”
Nicolai works directly with refugees and builds one-on-one friendships with many newcomers, but she also works with churches to help them better support refugees. She seeks to help Christians build stronger relationships with newcomers—to understand what it means to build God’s kingdom by pursuing friendships with people who dress differently, eat differently, believe and worship differently. People who have moved to a new country that is so different from their own and who are searching for a place to belong.
In Nicolai’s work, there are always new questions and challenges. Like Blankespoor, Nicolai has been part of Resonate’s Journeying into Friendships Network. She said it’s encouraging and helpful to hear stories from people in the CRC who are doing similar work in different contexts.
“I feel sometimes isolated in my work, so it’s great to feel like I have broader colleagues who I’m connected with,” said Nicolai. “It’s good to have people to process with … we [learn] more about ourselves in our own contexts.”
That’s why Resonate’s Journeying into Friendship Network provides connection points and learning opportunities for ministry leaders like Nicolai and Blankespoor through in-person consultations, video calls, and learning opportunities such as the Peer to Peer trips to Muslim-majority countries.
“We hope to create more connections between people working in ministry with neighbors from other cultures and religions … to share ideas and excitement around [interfaith] ministry and friendship,” said Greg Sinclair, Resonate’s diaspora ministry leader who helps facilitate the Journeying into Friendships Network.
“We also hope to inspire each other and the Church towards greater involvement in this type of ministry.”