Ten years ago, Rev. Robert Schuller, veteran host of "Hour of Power," the weekly televised church service, had never even met with a Muslim. Now the white-haired minister was basking in praises from two leading African-American Muslims in a Villa Park mosque.
"I've been watching Rev. Schuller for approximately 30 years and have long been inspired by the 'Hour of Power,'" Rev. Louis Farrakhan told the crowd of Muslims, Christians, Jews and Sikhs at the interreligious event Monday (Oct. 29, 2001).
Wallace Deen Mohammed, the most prominent orthodox imam in the African-American community, recalled that his father, Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, warned him white people were devils.
Still, he said, "In my 20s, I watched the 'Hour of Power,' [and] I didn't see any devil."
Schuller, 75, ministers to a 10,000-member Christian congregation at the glass Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. But his "positive theology of self-esteem" also appeals to many non-Christians, who watch his show in countries as far away as Azerbaijan.
In the Chicago area, "Hour of Power" airs at 6 a.m. Sunday on WBBM Channel 2.
Schuller has been touring to promote his new autobiography, "My Journey." But after the Sept. 11 tragedy, Schuller said, he wanted to do more than peddle books.
"I wanted to have evenings of hope," he said.
So he spoke at an interfaith event where religious leaders all but outdid one another in their testimonies of positive change.
For decades, Schuller said, he was a proponent of the kind of proselytizing that pushed Muslims to become Christians. Then he realized that asking people to change their faith was "utterly ridiculous."
Mohammed's change came when he rejected his father's exclusionary views.
"My fellow man is humanity," he said.
Farrakhan said that since a 1999 deathbed conversion he had moved from a nationalist Islam to a more universal Islam that saw the value of all faiths.
"I'm a Christian. I am a Muslim. I am a Jew. I am a Sikh. I am a Buddhist," he told the crowd.
Schuller's first interaction with a Muslim group came four years ago, when Mohammed invited him to give the opening sermon at the Muslim American Society's New Jersey convention. And in 1999, he was asked by the grand mufti of Syria to preach in Damascus.
"When I met the grand mufti ... I sensed the presence of God," he wrote in his autobiography.
The two men, he said, focused on similarities, not differences.
"We didn't discuss theological details that might distract us ... from hearing the voice of a crying child," he said.
Nor did they talk about whether non-Christians were going to hell.
"In a world with crying children we have no time," he said.
"The purpose of religion is not to say, 'I have all the answers, and my job is to convert you.' That road leads to the Twin Towers. That attitude is an invitation to extremists," he said.
After Sept. 11, he said, the emphasis should move from proselytizing "to just trying to help everybody who had hurts and hopes."
Mohammed concurred, telling the crowd, "I just love the company of another believer. I don't even think of his religion."
He told Schuller: "I love you, Christian brother. You have a friend."
Kareem Irfan, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago's chairman, said he liked the spirit of the gathering.
"It was great to see leaders come forward and preach the gospel of solidarity," Irfan said. "I found that to be very inspiring. Rev. Schuller's writing and speeches made it clear that he takes an expansive approach to religion. He has a lot of followers outside the traditional circles."