Mutual respect and sensitivity
Meeting people of other religions personally helps you understand their cultures and traditionsand is the best remedy against prejudices. Here are three examples of how to dial up the interreligious dialogue in everyday life.
Coping with anti-Muslim sentiment
Recently there was an incident in my school when a second grader drew a picture of an armored tank directed toward the school, and on it he wrote: “My plan to blow up the school.” There had also been several previous episodes when he talked about killing non-Muslims that were troubling for us in the school administration.
Sam has been struggling with his own developmental issues, but complicating things for him were the summer he spent with his family in Palestine and the recent violence reported in the media, including the anti-Muslim backlash after the Charlie Hebdo murders in France.
At the regularly scheduled Parent Teachers Association meeting, I met a parent of another second grade student, and we began a conversation about the level of violence going on in the community and beyond. Her child is quite stable, extremely bright and has a strong sense of self-sufficiency, but I wondered how he was coping with the recent reports of violence in the news. She shared how surprised she was at her son’s reaction to the anti-Muslim sentiment so prevalent in the stories shared on TV. He had become very upset listening to it, and in need of reassurance about what he has understood regarding his faith despite what people were saying about Muslims. She helped him to see that it didn’t represent the truth about them or their religion. We both felt so relieved to find in one another a person with whom we could speak so openly.
After this encounter, it occurred to me that many of our Arabic-speaking children and our Bengali children were suffering silently about these issues. Maybe there was something we could do in the school to bring these families together, at least the mothers and the children.
We set up a meeting after school, and 10 mothers with 30 children all gathered in a classroom. As you can imagine, it was very lively, and some of us stayed with the children while the rest gathered the mothers. Acknowledging that we didn’t have any formula on how to approach the subject of discrimination nor any solutions, we shared that we just wanted to find time to talk about how the children were coping with negative opinions about their religion. It was a great beginning, and many different opinions and experiences were shared. Everyone seemed grateful for the space to confront the issues and to discover new ways of helping one another.
I had found this thought of Focolare founder Chiara Lubich that greatly helped me in facing these current tensions, and I read it often to begin the day: “God who in the middle of the fury of war which was the fruit of hatred, but through the action of a special grace manifested himself for what he truly is: Love,” referring to her own World War II experience. It gives me the courage to face this delicate subject at school. And I am sure that in this way we can prevent our students from feeling marginalized, discriminated and possibly becoming radicalized.
Some weeks ago, I fell on a walk during lunch time and broke my wrist. My boss offered to drive me to the Emergency Room, but thinking of our critical deadlines at work I turned it down and took an UBER car. I asked the driver to help me open the door, and he did so from the inside. I told him about my broken wrist, and upon seeing it he realized I wouldn’t be able to close the door, so he jumped out of his seat and closed my door. I then asked him to excuse me if I cry or scream during the trip because of excruciating pain and not be distracted with his driving.
He became animated to help me relieve the pain. I greeted him As-saalam Alaikum, and he returned it with Alaikum Asaalam, after he told me that he was from Yemen. I told him we were praying for peace in Yemen. He was surprised that I know much about Islam, like Mecca and Ramadan. I told him I learned it from a Catholic priest. He asked if he’s teaching us that Islam is bad. I said, “not at all,” and that instead he wants us to understand that Islam is a wonderful religion like ours. I told him that I am Catholic, that I have Muslim friends and that they are beautiful people.
At one point I became very thirsty, I asked him if we could stop at a store to buy bottled water. He went to a gas station, and I gave him cash to buy me a drink. He opened the cap knowing I was not able to and gave me the change. At the end of my trip, I told him that I wanted to add a tip on my online receipt. He said, “No need for a tip, I pray that you get well.” He added that if a Muslim and a Christian could respect each other as we just did, there wouldn’t be any problem in this world. I agreed, and he greeted me, “God will bless you and protect you.” I thanked him and thanked God.
— Carol Nakai, California
The ripple effect
Becoming personally involved in interreligious dialogue surprised us and became an important part of our lives. And it all started with a cup of coffee.
It was a cold winter morning and Jim observed a man with a snow blower clearing off a portion of our lake after a huge snow storm. Jim brought him a cup of coffee and introduced himself. The man said he had a hockey team that wanted to practice on the ice. He also said he was a pilot and belonged to the local Presbyterian Church. They really hit it off and tried to get together, but it never worked out due to different schedules. The pilot, however, put us in touch with a couple who ended up taking us both to an interfaith meeting at the Rockaway Presbyterian church.
We were so impressed with the variety of local people at this meeting. There were a group of Muslims as well as people of other Christian churches. But, in particular, there was one Muslim from India sitting right next to a Muslim from Pakistan and they were getting along very well together even though their countries of origin often had difficulties with each other. We were touched by the dedication of the group to improve relations between people of all faiths.
Over the course of time, we were invited to dinner by three different Muslim families and had a cookout at our lake house for another family. Mary Jane became part of a women’s group of Christian and Muslims that met once a month and shared about their faith and daily life. A priest of our diocese contacted us and we were invited to a mosque in Paterson, so the relationships began to expand.
At one joint meeting at the Dover Presbyterian church, Mary Jane read excerpts of the talk of the Focolare founder Chiara Lubich at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem in 1997. After that, one Imam greeted her with a big smile, and asked for a copy of the talk. It was obvious he was touched by the words of Chiara. More occasions came: we offered a course on Islam in our parish, and there was a course on Christianity in a nearby mosque given by a priest we knew.
Finally, we read the book by Eboo Patel, Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action, about his work with people from different religions. We were thinking we should do something for young people ... so we had an Interfaith Youth Forum at our church. There were youth from two mosques, from the local Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, and a few youth from the Focolare. With about 30 adults and 30 youth, mostly high school age, we listened to scripture readings from each faith, joined in interactive games and shared about faith in our lives. Once you know believers of the other religions, you are less likely to generalize or believe that stereotypes are true.
We believe that God always shows where to go ... and where to start, be it a cup of coffee or a chat in the line at the supermarket.
— Mary Jane and Jim Milway, New Jersey