First Covenant Church of Sacramento, which has helped resettle several hundred Muslim refugees, received a big thank you Wednesday night from the SALAM Islamic Center.
At its annual interfaith Iftar, the SALAM center gave First Covenant its Distinguished Award for Exceptional Interfaith and Community Service.
More than 200 guests, including local, state and federal officials, stood to applaud First Covenant Executive Pastor Mark Shetler for promoting friendships between Christians and Muslims and offering material and spiritual support to refugees fleeing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
For the past four years, the church has sponsored an Iftar, or fast-breaking meal, for hundreds of SALAM members during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast between sunrise and sunset before eating.
“A crew of church members brought and served the food and cleaned up after the Iftar,” said SALAM executive director Metwalli Amer. SALAM has returned the favor, inviting church members to Middle Eastern feasts. And SALAM’s leadership delivered 350 toys for the church’s children on Easter 2014, Amer said.
Friday’s Iftar marked the first time an American mosque has honored an evangelical Christian church with such an award, said Amer, a nationally known Muslim leader. The church’s work with Muslim refugees and outreach efforts has built bridges of understanding, Amer told the interfaith gathering. “SALAM is their second home, and First Covenant is our second home.”
Shetler’s church was founded in 1913 and now hosts 1,800 congregants at its Rancho Cordova house of worship at 10933 Progress Court. He said the church has sponsored well over 100 refugees since 2009 and helped about 500 others adjust to their new lives in Sacramento.
“We had no idea what we were getting into – many of them are still suffering because a family member has either been killed or wounded because of the violence in their home country,” Shetler said. “Just last week, one of the refugee families got word that a brother, uncle and nephew all got killed by ISIS in Baghdad.”
First Covenant works with World Relief, the refugee agency that finds the newcomers apartments. Most live in Arden Arcade, Shetler said. Church volunteers clean the apartments, bring in donated furniture and kitchen supplies and food staples, and have a home-cooked meal waiting for the new arrivals when they come from the airport, he said.
“Then we have volunteers take them to the Social Security office, the Department of Social Services, help them register their kids for school, take them for medical appointments and also the first trip to the supermarket – most have never seen anything like it.”
The church has established a Bridges program that offers Sunday afternoon ESL classes, one-on-one conversation English lessons, after-school tutoring, teen soccer, driver’s ed, resume development and job search skills, Shetler said.
“I’m very glad that God has opened the door to let us develop these cherished friendships,” Shetler said. “The biggest thing is simply sitting down, having a conversation and getting to know these people. While we have very different theologies, they are still people created in the image of God and deserve to be loved.”