It was like living in a joke. “There was a rabbi, an imam and a minister…“ – But we did not walk into any bars. Instead, we walked into churches, synagogues and mosques, all part of a 15 day tour from Washington D.C. through the southern states, up to Michigan and back through Ohio and Pennsylvania organized by Clergy Beyond Borders. I joined the caravan in Atlanta and flew home from Nashville, participating in programs in two churches, three mosques, one synagogue and a university, all in four days. We also met with legislators in the Tennessee House of Representatives and with a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Our audiences included those who eagerly anticipated our visit to their town and others who, like the gentleman in the mosque in Nashville, had just “come for morning prayers, smelled coffee, and stayed to learn.”
The trip was the brainchild of Imam Yahya Hendi, a Palestinian American, the founder of the Washington DC based national group that sponsored the trip. We called ourselves a Caravan of Reconciliationand presented a program titled, From Fear to Faith.In every place we spoke, we found those for whom our message was welcome support, others for whom it was novel but exciting, and still others who challenged us with hard questions. We also found open hearts and much evidence to inspire hope. Indeed, the narrative that emerged was neither all rosy, nor all grim. Many Americans are suffering and confused; fear is a factor in our country, one that can easily be manipulated and turned into darker emotions. Religion, we saw vividly, can certainly be part of the problem. Our message: our religious communities can be part of the solution.
Imam Yahya would begin each talk by warning his audience that he had learned to preach from a Southern Baptist. This always brought a big laugh, as did his comment, "You may have noticed that I have an accent." He would then go on. "When they hear my accent, people ask me where I am from. So I tell them. I am from dust." Long pause. "I am a dustonian." Laughter. "From dust you come and to dust you will return. It is in the Bible and in the Qur'an. We share that belief." Hushed silence. Later, toward the end of his talk, the imam would sometimes circle back to the idea that we are all fellow dustonians. "That is my politics, that is my theology." Simple? Perhaps. But very effective, and a good place to begin to connect. Rabbi Gerry Serottawould also stress, each and every stop, that we were clergy beyond borders, not clergy without borders. We treasure our differences and the borders that circumscribe our unique faith communities.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg who travelled with the group for the first week, spoke powerfully to an audience at Masjeed AlFarooq, the largest mosque in Atlanta. She reported having spoken earlier that day at a synagogue where her message had been that she did not consider Jews the most victimized of people in America. “That dubious distinction goes to Muslims.” During the question period, a young Muslim man challenged her a bit angrily, “How could Jews possibly think they are oppressed?” Instead of responding that she agreed with him, she asked him, in the most loving way possible, not to assume he knows how the world looks to a Jew, just as she would not question the reality a Muslim experiences, nor would she credit the view of a non Muslim who presumed to do so. Heads nodded all around and the questioner himself seemed visibly moved. (The entire program is available on video here.)
Reverend Steve Martin, an evangelical preacher and a life long resident of Tennessee, the executive director of the New Evangelical Partnernship for the Common Good told audience about his ministry as a documentary film maker. He spoke of the friends he made making a film about Muslims in Appalaachia and how he worried, after the attacks of September 11th, how the people he had grown to love would fare in this new moment in history. He also talked about another film he had made, one about theologians in Nazi Germany. The analogy was subtle and gentle, but important. “As a Christian,” he would say, “I am concerned when my religious tradition causes damage.” In Chattanooga, 800 church goers, many of whom came that morning as part of their Sunday routine, rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to Imam Yahya. That experience was theirs only because the pastor of the church was an old friend of Reverend Steve. Later, a much smaller but still significant group returned for two hours of intense questions and answers. Over coffee, I asked as many people as I could, “Do you have Muslims in this city?” Most said they were not sure. A few had heard that there was a small group and that they were planning to build a mosque.
The issue of Muslim integration into society plays itself out these days through zoning battles over construction or expansion of mosques. I asked the pastor of the church if he had heard anything about the plans for a mosque in Chattanooga. He responded, “I am looking into it. I plan to try to contact them and see what I can do to support the community. Some of my colleagues and I want to let people know that if anyone has a problem with Muslims’ plans to workship, they should take it up with us.” In Chattanooga, that will count for a lot.
In my next post, I will talk about our visits to two communities that have faced zoning battles over mosques, Alpharetta, Georgia and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (For a preview of that program, watch here: Panel Promotes Religious Diversity)