I 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?