Methodist church eases post-election fears for Muslim, minority artists

Malik Gillani remembers the first day his world turned upside down. It was Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorist attacks cast a cloud of suspicion on his entire Muslim community.

When the Indian-born Muslim woke up the day after the 2016 presidential election, his world was shaken again. Donald Trump had won the White House. The country's next leader had proposed barring Muslim immigrants from coming to the U.S. and, early in his campaign, had made vague references to the possible registration of those who already live here.

While many Muslims sought solace at their mosques after Trump's election, Gillani found comfort in the same church that welcomed him nearly 15 years ago.

First United Methodist Church at Chicago Temple opened its doors to Gillani and his husband, Jamil Khoury, in 2003 when it agreed to let them stage a reading about Israeli-Palestinian relations in the basement. Named for the historic trade routes that connected cultures from the East and West, the theater company Silk Road Rising has since become a way for playwrights and performers to delve into the myriad issues facing American Muslims and immigrants.

Since the church converted the basement into a theater space in 2006, Gillani and Khoury have produced more than 70 plays, readings, video plays and panel discussions, many of which explore being Muslim, Asian or Middle Eastern in America. But while the theater has become a mainstay for Chicago's theatergoers, it has not drawn a sizable Muslim crowd. Many of the productions have tackled issues that community leaders say are simply not a priority for local Muslims.

But earlier this year, as the presidential campaign renewed fears of discrimination among Muslims, the theater staged two productions that hit closer to home. "Mosque Alert" told the story of a suburban Muslim congregation's struggle to build a house of worship. "Ultra-American" featured comedian Azhar Usman's commentary on the balance of being Muslim and American in a polarized political world.

Gillani and Khoury watched the faces of the audience change as more religiously observant Muslims sought to understand Islam's place in the U.S., let alone inside the oldest church in Chicago. When those patrons expressed unease that the play conflicted with one of the five daily prayers, the church took its accommodation one step further, opening additional space for audience members to perform those prayers during intermission.

Now people of any faith who need a place to pray or meditate can use the Mabuhay Fellowship room inside the church. "Mabuhay" means welcome in the Filipino language of Tagalog.

"What does interfaith dialogue look like in practice?" asked Gillani, executive director of the theater. "What it looks like in practice is going to a theater to watch a play written by a Muslim and going into the Mabuhay room of a Methodist church to pray knowing you can do that with safety, you're not going to be bothered and you're welcomed to be who you are."

The church's gesture of interfaith hospitality has been a balm for many of the artists Silk Road Rising has featured as their anxiety grows over Trump's personnel choices for his administration. Last month, Trump named Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser, a man who has said Islam is not a religion, but a cancer and political ideology. As Indiana governor, Vice President-elect Mike Pence sought to bar resettlement of Syrian refugees in his home state earlier this year.

Khoury is not Muslim, but his father is from Syria.

"As someone from a Middle Eastern Christian background, it's a different type of vulnerability, but my husband is Muslim so I very much own this as our struggle," said Khoury, Silk Road's artistic director who has penned two live plays and all of the video components produced by the theater.

Khoury said the amplified minority-status vulnerability among Silk Road artists has galvanized the group to rethink and reinvigorate its mission.

"How do we respond to a president-elect who used race-baiting and fears of immigrants and refugees and Islamophobia to advance his campaign and the fact that those efforts paid off?" he said. "What is our responsibility as theater-makers and artists, people who see our activism and artistic work as intertwined and complementary?"

Plays now will revolve around at least one of six themes. They will champion feminism as well as the rights of immigrants, Muslims and the LGBT community. They will denounce colonialism and racism.

Khoury hopes the new approach will draw more nontraditional theatergoers as they see their voices and experiences represented — much like the Muslims who attended the last two shows.

The Rev. Myron McCoy, senior pastor of Chicago Temple since 2014, said even though he inherited the relationship with Silk Road Rising from his predecessor, the Rev. Philip Blackwell, he believes the little theater in the church basement has enhanced the church's values of embracing all people, especially those who are threatened and marginalized. Since becoming pastor, he has assembled a committee to coordinate with the theater and has invited Gillani and Khoury to Sunday school classes.

When the current show "Christmas at Christine's," a holiday music revue set in a Filipino Christian-Jewish household, opened last week, the church bought out an entire show for the Filipino members of its congregation.

Earlier this year, the church used Silk Road's stage to host an event with Larycia Hawkins, the tenured political science professor at west suburban Wheaton College who donned a head scarf in solidarity with Muslims, then left the evangelical school after it tried to fire her for saying Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

"We're finding ways to collaborate and cooperate, which is increasingly necessary. As a society, we say we're diverse, but many times the diversity is not connected," McCoy said. "We're attempting to create some intersections so folks can be more acquainted with cultures beyond their own."