Dialogue at the deli
An Indiana interfaith group celebrates after 20 years
By Susanne Janssen
Corned beef on rye is the signature sandwich at Shapiro’s Delicatessen, an Indianapolis deli with more than 100 years of tradition. Yet not only the delicious menu makes it famous: for two decades now, a group of Christians and Muslims have gathered every Wednesday at noon at Shapiro’s Delicatessen downtown for deli sandwiches … and dialogue.
Their meeting was inspired when the leaders of two religious movements met each other in 1997 — Imam W. D. Mohammed of the then American Society of Muslims, based in Chicago, and Chiara Lubich of the Focolare.
Encouraged by St. John Paul II, who was pope at the time, Lubich and Mohammed brought together their members to get to know each other and build bridges between different faith traditions wherever they were. This led to hundreds of interfaith groups being established all over the world. Some of them — like the one at Shapiro’s — have remained vibrant and have grown for over two decades now.
Meeting again … and again
Mikal Saahir and three friends met with local Focolare members for dinner at Shapiro’s. They had an inspiring conversation, so they decided to meet again. And again. And again. Every week for 20 years, the interfaith group has met for lunch to share their experiences.
“Interfaith is a must as we get closer to other communities in our human family,” said Saahir. “We are more connected and close thanks to Internet and faster travel opportunities.”
Saahir is a lifelong resident of Indianapolis and has been Imam of the Nur-Allah Islamic Center for almost 25 years. He retired from the Indianapolis Fire Department in January 2017.
The group is predominantly Muslim, Baptist and Catholic, and over the years, some Jewish members, followers of Sun Myung Moon and others without a specific faith tradition joined for a period of time.
John Mundell, environmental engineer and president of Mundell & Associates in Indianapolis, has been part of the group from its beginnings. Even today he still discovers new things in the other faith traditions.
“I continue to understand the beautiful relationship that other believers have with God, and the impact of that relationship on how they live their lives. It’s inspiring! It makes me ask myself, ‘What should I do as a Catholic in response to this?’ Because of this encounter, I’ve become so much more the person I believe God wants me to be.”
David Shaheed, a Muslim, shared how the Interfaith connection influenced his professional life: “The concept of ‘loving your neighbor in the present moment’ was new to me. Over my career as a judge, it shaped my conduct on the bench, but more importantly it guided my interactions with the lawyers, defendants and parties that I saw on a daily basis.”
Saahir said the group does not talk about religion a lot, but instead searches for commonality. “Our weekly lunches are not about conversion or religious debating. Each group is encouraged to bring their respective religious messages, and very often we find that we are just saying the same thing in a different way.”
The group coalesced around issues fueled by the profound conflict and religious differences surrounding the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the war in Iraq, the never-ending conflicts between Israel and Palestine.
Mundell emphasizes that in these moments, the group is more relevant than ever. “With the state of our world today and the difficulties that are present in trying to enter into dialogue with people of opposite political views and beliefs, groups like ours are ‘sign posts of hope’, pointing the way to how the world could be if we just took the time to sit down and break bread together. We have so much in common — life’s challenges, the joys, the hardships — really our humanity. It’s such a strong connection if we take the time to understand it.”
Saahir adds, “I discovered in the faith of my Christian brothers and sisters who live their scripture that there was more to revelation than what is communicated with a surface reading.” He was raised Christian, but he says that in the interfaith group, “I first met Christians who actually live their scripture; not only talk it. This changed me and my environment, too.”
Interfaith in daily life
Michael Wilson, a retired Army colonel and chaplain, was drawn to the interfaith group after his son-in-law, who is Muslim, told him about it.
“I came to Indy in 1985 initially, but I went off of active duty around ’94 and I met my wife, Annie, who has passed. Annie’s son is Muslim, and I wanted to meet with an interfaith group that included Islam as a part of it. They were meeting at Shapiro’s, and I suspect it was in the late ’90s that I started meeting with them every week. We’ve been together 20 years. I started meeting with them when I was a chaplain with St. Vincent hospital,” says Wilson.
As a Christian chaplain, Wilson has had lots of experience with people of different faiths. “For a long time, chaplaincy looked more Christian and not (inclusive) to other faiths,” Wilson explained. “Our insignias and everything else I have seen has changed for the better. It has changed to be interfaith.”
Facing toward the future
Amidst 20 years of political and religious turmoil, against all odds, the group has survived.
“We never would have thought we’d be doing this 20 years later,” says Saahir. “We did something we didn’t think would work or last.”
The group has evolved over time. In the beginning, they had to overcome racial divides, while now they deal with political and religious strife.
Occasionally, someone who joins the group does not have the same idea of what dialogue is about.
“Probably the most difficult times have been when people come who may not be so much into dialogue as they are into convincing someone that a particular point of religious belief is right over another,” says Mundell. “If that occurs, we still try to listen to that person to understand their concerns. It is a reminder of what a lot of the world is still like.”
“When I first started coming to Shapiro’s we went to war because Muslims had hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center. We have endured during all of that and dialogued with each other rather than war with one another,” says Wilson.
He explains that getting along within the group is simple. “We come together on what’s common. It helps serve as a model for others who may not be secure in their faith.”
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