Lunch with the Imam

hummus-280bI had lunch with the Imam on Monday.  That’s not his given name, but it’s what the others at the table—two members of his congregation—were calling him.  They sat on either side of him, nodding respectfully in his direction whenever they mentioned that “the Imam” had said this or that, or that we might want to ask “the Imam.”  I was having lunch with him at the invitation of one of our newer members, who is interested in interfaith dialogue and who thought a get-acquainted meeting with his pastor and the local imam might be a good idea.  I thought it would too, and only partly because we were having lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The Imam himself—Ammar Amonette—looked nothing like I had imagined: fair-haired and fair-skinned with a rambling beard that reminded me of something I might have seen among the Pennsylvania Dutch.  It turns out he is of French Huguenot ancestry, and has lived in several of these United States including South Carolina where, as a boy, he developed a southern accent so strong his northern relatives couldn’t understand him.  These days his accent is hard to place, but perhaps only because as a U.S. Army brat he has lived “literally, all over the world,” and as a student of Islam was in Mecca for twelve years. 

I was impressed by his understanding of Christianity, right down to the various Baptist denominations.  I was impressed by his familiarity with technology (not only the cell phone he pulled out to reply to a text message, but his You Tube videos I discovered when I got back to the office).  And I was impressed by his ability to listen thoughtfully to someone from another faith tradition without criticizing or condemning.   As the meal wound down toward the dessert course it seemed that we were having true interfaith dialogue.

I shared the story of the time I had asked a Muslim woman from the Gambia, “What do you love about your religion?”  Her name was Badjie.  She was the assigned caregiver for one of my elderly members in DC.  We had talked many times in the past, but I had never asked her about being Muslim.  “So, Badjie, what do you love about your religion?” I asked, and she said, “I love the emphasis on forgiveness.” 

“Forgiveness?” I asked, wondering if I had heard her correctly.  Forgiveness was not the word that came to mind when I thought of Islam.

“Oh, yes!” she said.  “Forgiveness is very important to Muslims.” 

“To Christians too!” I said, and for the next thirty minutes or so that was what we talked about: the way forgiveness is emphasized by our respective faith traditions.  When it was time to go I turned to my parishioner, Jeannette, and offered to say a prayer with her and then I turned to Badjie and asked if she would like to join us.  She said yes and we all joined hands. Just before I closed my eyes to pray I looked down and saw Jeannette’s pale, frail hand in mine, mine in Badjie’s, and Badjie’s strong, dark hand in Jeannette’s. I don’t think you could have found three more different people on the planet, but there we were, all of us children of God, holding each other’s hands and bowing our heads to offer up a prayer.

I will never forget that moment.

That’s the promise of interfaith dialogue, and that’s why I agreed to have lunch with the Imam on Monday.  I had this hope that if we talked long enough and listened long enough we might come to that place where, in spite of profound differences in the way we understand God, we would recognize each other as his children. 

And who knows where we might go from there?

7 thoughts on “Lunch with the Imam

  1. True interfaith dialogue is powerful, isn’t it? Recently I had the opportunity to participate in UR’s Sylvester Conference on Muslim-Christian Dialogue, and for two days about 50 of us from this general area listened and talked with each other, learning a great deal from differing perspectives. I was struck with many similarities in our beliefs, and came away with an even greater appreciation than I had earlier of the great opportunities we often miss when we don’t go outside our usual paths and comfort zones. Thanks for encouraging us to continue trying to bring heaven to earth in Richmond.

  2. YES! I so appreciate this dialogue and I agree with Betty Ann.

    There are always the proverbial “bad apples” or extremists within ALL religious groups which cause fear, mistrust, conflict, misunderstanding, and so on. I have an analogy that I would like to share – one that has stayed with me since I first heard it years ago. Picture the wheel of a bike and the rim that forms a circle, with the spokes that lead to the center/hub. Note that the rim, spokes, and hub are all connected. Each spoke represents a different religion. Each religion is seeking the same thing: pure love, truth, righteousness, and/or God – GOD is the center.

  3. As the American christian society,I think sometimes we as members find it hard to grasp the customs and traditions and religions of other cultures, because we sometimes can and do get caught up in
    ” ours is the right way and yours is the wrong way mentality”

    for thousands of years nation after nation has disputed over this very issue.they have even gone to war and shed blood for their belief’s … history shows us that.
    i saw a bumper sticker and took a picture of it ..its says co-exist, Jim your luncheon was a great example and reminder to us all that though we serve the same God,
    called by many names by many different nations, our practices and beliefs can and will differ, yet i think of our mission as a church with god’s heart..to bring the Kingdom of heaven to Earth,,that’s a great and powerful example of another way we can do just that..

  4. Jim,
    Glad you’re at FBC Richmond now. I was the first student to sign up for BTSR & did M. Div. and D. Min. there. Dr. Flamming was a good friend, as were Steve Booth & Lynn Turner. I hope you have met Ben Campbell at the Church Hill Retreat Center. Interfaith Dialogue is something that he got me involved in that I continued at Va. Wesleyan in Norfolk (Center for Religious Studies). On a trip last November to Jordan, I asked our Sunni guide what the greatest blessing of being Muslim was for him… PEACE! Not what I would have thought of, but he was incredibly sincere. We have much need for sitting at the table together in peace and forgiveness. Way to go man!
    Steve Fitzgerald

  5. http://www.saintstephensrichmond.net/CenterForReconciliation.htm

    Very interesting about “Lunch with the Imam”. Forgive me if you are already aware of it, however, above is a link to the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation which is headquartered at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church locally at the corner of Grove Avenue and Three Chopt Road (next door to St. Bridget’s Catholic Church and across the street from St. Catherine’s School). The Rev. Dr. William L Sachs, a former Associate Rector at St. Stephen’s, is the Director of the Center. They are, of course, involved with interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians. I simply share the above in case you might be interested in contacting them.

    By the way, speaking of the buffet raised a question in my mind. Can and do Muslims eat chocolate for dessert or snacks? Just wondering! Anyway, Happy Easter to you and your family, Dr. Jim!

  6. Dear Jim,

    As I was visiting FBC’s website, I came across your blog and the story of your interfaith encounter. It’s a wonderful story. I appreciate the openness you display. Christians can learn much, including much about God, in and from the religious other. That said, some of the comments here seem problematic. Christians do not confess that all sincere religious practitioners are children of the one triune God revealed in Jesus — much less that all traditions speak or serve that God. To do so, renders biblical language of “adoption” meaningless and the crucifixion we remember Friday a mere tragedy. Worse yet, to speak in such a way fails to take religious diversity seriously and in so doing endangers the interfaith dialogue it seeks to promote.

    In the name of harmony, such attitudes do violence to the beliefs of others (as well as our own) in order to just get along. I suspect just getting along falls somewhat short of the Great Commandment that FBC embraces. It reduces interfaith dialogue to a lowest common denominator rather than learning from the greatest strengths of our respective traditions. Badjie shared with you a strength from her tradition. It so happened that you were able to claim a similar strength. That is not always the case. To presume otherwise, as some of the comments here do, dishonors the real differences between us and inhibits honest dialogue and true understanding.

    I offer these concerns because I believe interfaith dialogue is vital to Christian mission.

    Peace,
    Steven Porter
    Durham, North Carolina

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