Caught in Conversation

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L-R: Edie (Catholic), Judy Lewis (Jewish), Bro. Al Mascia, OFM (Catholic) and R. Kahn (Muslim) Co

Caught in Conversation is the brainchild, or maybe I should say heartchild, of Mary Gilhuly. Because I don’t know that the brain could come up with, and keep advocating five years for, a gathering of Jews, Christians and Muslims to come together for dinner and conversation. The brain would serve up a heap of reasons not to — it could get heated; who would show up?; why bother?  where ?

I’m one of Mary’s tiling volunteers at Song and Spirit. For the purposes of this post however, Mary was the force behind this week’s Caught in Conversation held at the Muslim Unity Center here in Bloomfield    Township. Over one hundred people signed up.

Envision the setting — twenty tables covered with white cloths, each one set for six.  I know, it sounds like the set up for a joke — two Christians, two Muslims and two Jews show up for dinner conversation.  We began with blessings led in turn by Hazzan Steve Klaper, Imam Elturk of IONA and finally Brother Al Mascia. Whispers in Hebrew, Arabic and English rolled through the room, three quiet waves of gratitude for the meal before us.

I was a bit trepidatious. How would I, a pro-Zionist  Jew feel in a Muslim community center?  Would the conversations be stilted? How was this really going to work? The most contact I’ve had with women wearing a hijab has been a casual wave around town. But I believe in the power of conversation; how could I miss this?

Darvick-Picture-a-Conversation-IMG_2409Over felafel sandwiches, chicken rollups, and salad we introduced ourselves.  At our table was a Catholic man who serves on Song & Spirit’s Board of Directors; a young man who is making his initial vows to become a Franciscan friar; two Muslim women, one a doctor, the other an attorney;  a Jewish woman I know from tiles and me. It was an evening of learning; a night of uncovering similarities; a meal over which assumptions were set right and customs were shared.

The doctor at our table recalled her surprise upon realizing the parallels between  Muslim and Jewish burial customs. The board member assumed that rabbis, like Catholic priests, do not marry or have families. Not true, but without an evening like this, how might he have ever known? The young man beside me, a postulant in the Franciscan order, told of us his plans to become a friar —  pursuing a divinity degree, taking vows of poverty and celibacy. It was quite moving hear a young person filled with such dedication to his faith eagerly on a path so different from that of his peers. Adjacent to our table, six mothers discussed the challenges of keeping their teens connected to church, mosque and synagogue.

The six of us discussed Original Sin and how something that is expunged by baptism in the Catholic faith doesn’t exist for Jews or Muslims.  We learned of a moving Muslim birth custom — whispering the call to prayer into the ear of a newborn so that the first words the infant hears are sweet words of tradition and not the whisperings of any evil spirits that might be hovering near by. It made me wish that I had whispered the Shema to Elliot and Emma at their moments of birth.

Granted, we were a self-selected group open to learning and new experiences. The night’s purpose wasn’t to solve global crises, but to engage in positive religious dialogues that the world beyond our dinner tables rarely notices or envisions. I think we all felt a sense of safety from the pundits and politics. The briquets of today’s rhetoric-soaked sound bites fuel little that brings harmony within or without. Our goal was to lay down a few hefty logs of community and kindle them with hope and conversation, not ignoring our religious traditions but because of them. I wondered if such a gathering could happen anywhere else in the world but America.  Likely in Israel. And Canada. But France? Lebanon? Egypt? Last night was about being ourselves and bringing ourselves to the table precisely because we are Americans of different religions.

As I was leaving, one of the women from the Center called out to me that she hoped we would do this again.  I said I hoped so.  In Sh’Allah, she said. I nodded, which prompted her to ask if I knew what it meant. “Of course,” I replied. “It means Baruch HaShem. May it be God’s will.”

I’m not so Pollyanna-ish to think that an evening’s program will change the world. But you have to start somewhere and a civil, engaging and heartfelt conversation is a pretty good place to start.

 

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4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Linda Anger says:

    You are so fortunate, Debra, to have been part of this gathering! I can hear John Lennon singing, “Imagine” in the background. If dinners like this happened on a regular basis all around the world, there might someday be no war, no bigotry, no hatred.

  2. laya crust says:

    Beautiful, Debra.
    Dinners like this won’t change the entire world but it will help make the world a little better, and bring a little more understanding. It’s wonderful that you and 99 others took the leap and held hands with people you didn’t know before. I hope this goodness will be the next virus to infect the world.

  3. Beatrice Rowe says:

    I was so pleased with your time at “my” Unity Center. I took a close Gentile friend when they had their first open house years ago. We need to talk more over the many ways to learn more.We’ll talk! Bea

  4. Bethany W. Mosshart says:

    This captures the sharing, attentive, inquiring tone of this lovely event so well. I was honored to attend and share some sweet moments of human connection across religious and racial lines. I think this kind of event does change the world for it gives goodness and understanding a place to flourish and grow like the mustard seed.

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