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Bible camp welcomes Muslims, committed to continuing relationship

Suzanne Vitale | Special to the Leader
Bishop Laurie Skow-Anderson, of the ELCA’s Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, traveled up to Luther Point to show her support Sunday for camp executives Sam Campeau, left, and Jan Hermann. Skow-Anderson was present at the denomination’s annual convention last week in Milwaukee where 97% of delegates voted to approve an inter-religious policy calling for all religions to work together for peace and justice for all. - Photo by Suzanne Vitale
Reaction by some extremists to online article has caused fear at camp
GRANTSBURG – Luther Point Bible Camp is poised to welcome a retreat group from the Muslim American Society of Minnesota this week as it has done off and on for 19 years.
This year they’ll continue to welcome the MASM group but amidst fears of what extremists might do in light of reaction to an article posted last week on the Leader’s website,
"The Muslim American Society is going to have to hire private security because of this article now,” said camp director Sam Campeau.
The article focused on what some in the local Christian community and others have cited as legitimate concerns, including the labeling of the camp as a "training and activism" retreat.
Campeau said the Luther Point Board of Directors voted 20 years ago to host retreats for the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. The board remains united in this position. He said one board member has flown missions in Afghanistan and is adamant that Luther Point must continue its relationship with MASM.
The online article, "Concerns surface over local Bible camp hosting Muslim activism camp," contained misleading information that didn't tell the whole story, according to Campeau.
• While the article stated, "Neither the United States government nor the United Nations has designated MAS as a terrorist group and the United Arab Emirates has been criticized for using an overly broad brush in their designation of terror groups," it failed to note that Asad Zaman, executive director of MAS Minnesota, said every one of the 28 Muslim groups declared as terrorist organizations by the United Arab Emirates, including MAS, is a pro-democracy group. He said the Emirates, which is a kingdom, hates all moves toward democracy and condemns any group promoting democratic actions.
• While the article noted that after a Philadelphia MAS camp included children singing a song with threatening lyrics, the "national MAS organization said in response that a school renting space from MAS Philadelphia had organized the portrayed events and that the person responsible had been fired," it failed to note that MAS immediately investigated the matter and began a new policy that no one would be able to rent space without specifically saying what they were going to use the building for.
"MAS’ deep commitment to values of peace, justice, freedom and sanctity of life are clear,” the national Muslim group said. "As a faith-based organization committed to building a just and virtuous society, we stand strong in our condemnation of hate and violence anywhere, even in the lyrics of a song.”
• The Leader article quoted from a 2004 Chicago Tribune story and implied that Luther Point hosted a retreat for a Chicago Muslim group in 2003. Campeau said that is not true. The camp has no record of ever hosting such a group.
The Leader left messages at MAS of Minnesota for comment for the online article but did not get a reply. It also published a letter from Campeau addressing the concerns, both in its print and online editions.

Shares by extremist websites

The Leader's online article has been shared at least 180 times on Facebook. Many of those shares are simply to people's private pages and have no comments. About half the shares have been to what appear to be extremist-run pages, such as "Ban Islam, Save Mankind," "Society for the Expulsion of Extremist Islam from Your America," "Wisconsin Christian Soldiers," "Exposure of devil Islam" and "Kentucky Minutemen Militia III and Patriots."
There were positive responses supporting the camp but a comment on one of the shared posts called Luther Point "a home-grown jihadi training camp.”
Campeau said Luther Point fears what extremists might do in light of the article.
Luther Point has been hosting retreats and family camps from the Minnesota group for 19 years off and on. For the past five or six years, the group has come annually for family camp and a conventional retreat.
He said the camps are much like every other camp at Luther Point: The kids love to fish and boat and "were very excited about s’mores.”
He said the group respects the camp and recognizes it as a spiritual, sacred place. They never take down or cover up Luther Point’s crosses or other religious symbols.
"I have been present for their calls to prayer,” Campeau said. "It’s very calming and spiritual.”
Jan Hermann, president of Luther Point’s board of directors, said the extremist groups and online comments scare her and the accusations against the camp make her very sad.
"It hurts my servant heart,” she said. "I think about the ministries that we work with and want to promote. To have hate taint any of that, it hurts.”

It began with Facebook post
What sparked the current controversy was a Facebook post inviting people to an upcoming retreat called the "2019 Midwest Tarbiya and Activism Camp.” The unfamiliar words ignited fear and hatred among some in the community. Luther Point has received many letters in response, about half against the upcoming camp and half in support. None of the letters contained threats, but the camp did contact the Burnett County sheriff to let her know what is going on.
One woman wrote that the camp had become a "devil’s arena.”
Jay Ticknor, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Grantsburg, is frustrated that misinformation about the camp at Luther Point has "blown up all out of proportion.’’
"Like so many things, it blows up so quickly with bad information,” Ticknor said.
People are assuming they know what 'activism' means, he said. The camp to be held at Luther Point has nothing to do with extremist activities.

MASM leader comments

Zaman, the imam in charge of the Minnesota group, said he doesn’t think the retreat this week is much different from any other retreat Luther Point hosts.
The camp consists of morning exercise, lectures, meals and prayer. Zaman said the family camp is very laid-back and relaxing. The youth camp is much more rigorous, with a lot of exercise, hiking and climbing the ropes course.
He said the goal of any retreat, whether Lutheran or Muslim, is the same.
"We want them to be rejuvenated in their spirituality after five days of camp,” he said.
The retreat is intended for young people ages 18 to 28. He said people in this age group tend to need more grounding in their faith.
In a 50-minute phone conversation, Zaman said his group denounces radicalization of all forms. He said no member of his organization has ever been radicalized.
"The mere act of teaching Islam” fights against radicalization, he said. Islam simply doesn’t allow it and MASM makes that clear in its education programs.
He said the society has held the "Tarbiya and Activism” camp twice before at Luther Point, in 2014 and 2015. Tarbiya is the Arabic word for "education,” and the Activism portion of the title refers to being physically active through sports, spiritually active in their faith and socially active as citizens in our democracy.
"I don’t know why when Muslims do mundane things, they become a big deal,” he said.
Zaman, who gave the opening prayer for the 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature, said the society and its member mosques put a lot of energy into combating white nationalism. They do this by reaching out to the broader community through events and speaking engagements. The society has an annual Muslim Day at the Minnesota Capitol, organizes interfaith dinners with Jewish and Christian groups and provides speakers for any community group that would like to learn more about Islam. He recently spoke to a Twin Cities Rotary Club.
"The best way for people to understand each other is to interact with each other,” he said.
The group seeks to build understanding so that people don’t "otherize” Muslims.

"Love one another"
Campeau and Hermann, Luther Point’s executives, wrote in a public statement that "by welcoming our Muslim brothers and sisters to rent the facilities at Luther Point Bible Camp, we are living (Jesus’) commandment to love one another.”
"We must start building bridges with our neighbors,” they said. "To understand one another is the first step in becoming friends and partners.”
Bishop Laurie Skow-Anderson, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, stands by Luther Point.
"Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves,” she said.
The bishop attended Luther Point’s annual quilt auction Sunday to show support. She had just returned from the ELCA’s annual churchwide assembly in Milwaukee. During that assembly, the delegates voted 97% in favor to approve a Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment.
The ELCA document applauds Lutheran ministries, like the one at Luther Point, that participate in inter-religious activities and says the church needs to strive to do more. These efforts "build mutual understanding and advance the common good.’’
"As Lutherans, we are called to move from mere coexistence to a more robust engagement. It is through authentic, mutual relationships that we can truly love our neighbors as people made in the image of God,’’ the statement says.
The ELCA document, which was drafted in 2017 and has been reviewed and worked on extensively since then, says Christians have a significant relationship with Jews and Muslims since all three world religions find their roots in Abraham. Followers of Islam trace their faith back to Ishmael, Abraham’s son with his servant.
"Given this kinship, Lutherans have a responsibility to overcome stereotypes and misunderstandings of Muslims and Jews and to seek fuller understanding and cooperation,” the document says.
A deeper understanding among world religions enhances the ability to work together for justice and peace for all, the document says.
"Mutual understanding does not diminish but rather deepens our own faith,” the ELCA document says.
Skow-Anderson, the Northwest Synod bishop, was present when the policy statement was approved. She said religious leaders representing Hindu, Islam, Sikh, Catholic, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Moravian, Episcopalian, African Methodist Episcopal and Reformed Jews lined up across the stage, joined hands and raised their arms in unity.
"It was a goose-bump moment,” the bishop said. "We are church together. We are working towards restoring God’s creation.”
Others are trying to build walls to separate God’s people, she said. Leaders of all these religious denominations showed they are building bridges toward unity.

Fulfilling a goal

Ticknor, the Grantsburg pastor, said all denominations in the Wisconsin Council of Churches are "partaking in these same conversations.” He said it is very likely that the people who are upset about this camp at Luther Point don’t realize that their own denominations support interfaith cooperation exactly like this.
By renting spacing to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, Luther Point is fulfilling a goal of the ELCA itself and many other denominations in the United States, he said.
The Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, a coalition of nearly 100 religious denominations and faith-based groups, partners with the ELCA in its support for interfaith dialog. Among its other members are the United Church of Christ, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the Presbyterian Church USA, to name just a few. Together these groups seek to end discrimination and violence against Muslims in the United States.
Nina Fernando, program director of Shoulder to Shoulder, said her group commends Luther Point for hosting the Muslim camps.
"Knowing our neighbors and building relationships with them is incredibly important, especially now when the divide is widening,” she said.
She said MAS is a member of the Minnesota Council of Churches, one of Shoulder to Shoulder’s partners. Every Ramadan, the Minnesota council and MAS gather hundreds of people at joint Christian-Muslim events to promote understanding and cooperation among different faiths.

Meet Your Muslim Neighbor
The controversy surrounding Luther Point did not appear to dampen support for the camp at its annual quilt auction Sunday. About 150 people of all ages attended. Hermann said the crowd was larger this year than last, and the camp raised more than $17,000 for its programs.
Hermann, a Grantsburg native, said Luther Point has received almost as many emails in support of its decision as opposed. Some of the positive emails have brought tears to her eyes. One young mother wrote to say "how proud I am that my children attend a camp that is dedicated to partnering with other faiths to help us all understand each other more.”
James Erlandson, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, also expressed his strong support.
"In these days of tension, Islamophobia and fear about Muslims in America by a few, it is the right thing for Christians to do to support the opportunity for Muslim youth to go to camp and experience the beauty of our lakes and wilderness, as well as to explore their faith as Muslims,” he wrote. "It is a strength of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that we are able to partner with our Muslim brothers and sisters in providing such an opportunity for Muslim youth in the same camp where Lutheran and other Christian youth explore their faith in the God of Creation.”
Hermann said going forward she plans to organize a Meet Your Muslim Neighbor event "so we can keep the understanding flowing.” She said Zaman, the MASM director, is eager to visit Grantsburg to share the story of his faith and dispel fears and misconceptions. She recalled the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Darkness can't drive out the darkness. Only light can."

Reader Comments
John Persico[email protected]
AUG 15  •  Glad to see that we can have interfaith cooperation in our area. Thanks for letting the community know what your goals are. I hope your letter can ease some of the fear that many people have around the issue of Islam.
wanda stevens[email protected]
AUG 14  •  Wonderful article. Many of us, myself included, welcome all God's people to our communities.

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