Why I shared a Muslim prayer in the Iowa Senate

State Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott is a Democrat from Windsor Heights. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Trone Garriott)

I recently shared a prayer, written by a constituent, on the Iowa Senate floor.

Prayer is part of the daily proceedings. Since we cannot invite guests during the pandemic to pray or share words of inspiration, senators are taking turns. Christian voices have been overwhelmingly represented, but that is not fully representative of Iowa. The prayer I shared included Arabic words for the Divine and was written by a young Muslim woman.

I wasn’t surprised to receive hateful messages in the days to follow.

I was featured on the “Jihad Watch” website and the comments started coming following that. They showed up all over my Senate Facebook posts, whether they were related or not. Some were from outside Iowa and some were from local people. They said horrible stereotypical things about my Muslim neighbors — Sharia law, hating freedom, violent religion. There were others who made comments about the United States being a Judeo-Christian country and therefore Muslim prayers were not welcome. There were some attacks against me, as a Christian leader I was leading people astray, that I didn’t know what I was doing.

I don’t know what my Republican colleagues think. Only one spoke in response to me after I spoke about this experience on the Senate floor. He thanked me, saying, “it’s good that you said something, even if people might not agree with you.”

It makes me more convinced of the need to for more diverse voices in the proceedings of our state government. I want to share why these diverse religious voices matter so much to me, and how religious diversity matters to all of us.

I often tell people that I became a Christian minister because of Navajo medicine men and Jewish women. In 1999, I was an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer in Gallup, New Mexico, for a legal aid program on a domestic violence project. I heard stories from survivors of how Christian faith was used as a weapon: to shame them, to blame them, to keep them in violent situations. At the same time, I saw the Indigenous traditional spiritual leaders in the women’s shelter offering ritual and prayer to help the residents heal.

I found something in other religious communities to admire and it inspired me to look for the good in my own Christian faith. It was the Jewish women in the legal aid office that encouraged me to coordinate a conference for faith leaders on the topic, and started me down the road to ordination.

The day before I began my master of theological studies degree at Harvard University was Sept. 11, 2001. On that religiously diverse campus, I was more aware of the rising anti-Muslim bigotry and its harm. I am kind a biblical literalist, and when Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, I took that to heart. I worked with my Muslim classmates to organize a meal to bring the community together during Ramadan.

While I was in seminary, I worked as a hospital chaplain. At Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, it was my role to be there for everyone in their time of need. One night, I sat vigil with a Muslim family from Bosnia as their child died of cancer. During the long hours that we waited, they told me about genocide: One day they were our neighbors, the next day they were killing us.

As a Christian minister in rural Virginia and the Des Moines metro area, I also saw the diversity and divisions within Christianity. My friends from the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS brought me to Nauvoo, Illinois. I stood on the street that their members walked down to cross the frozen Mississippi River in February, driven out of the state by hatred. I was honored to be a guest at the ordination of Bishop William Joensen of the Des Moines Diocese, despite the long history of animosity between Protestants and Catholics.

I now work with the largest Food Pantry Network in the metro to bring people of different faiths and no religious faith together around something that all have in common: food. A big part of my work is providing opportunities to build relationships and understanding across religious diversity. Each summer, I coordinate a camp for high school students to reflect on their own faith or values while learning about the faiths of others. I am so proud of these students and am always seeking to give them opportunities to grow in leadership, such as writing a prayer to be shared on the floor of the Senate.

Because of all this, I actively seek to bring in the voices of those in the minority of power or number. We can’t work together for the good of Iowa when some are left out, when bigotry renders some voiceless, when rhetoric that inspires violence is allowed to go unchallenged.

No aspect of anything that happens here in this chamber should be dominated by one voice. If we are to have prayer in this space, the State Capitol, that opportunity needs to be open to all. If we are here to ensure religious freedom (both from and for), that right must be for all Iowans. I want to make it clear, that when I lift up the voices of my religiously diverse neighbors, this is how I faithfully carry out my elected duty.