This afternoon I’m headed to Roanoke for the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia—our state convention. It’s going to be an interesting meeting, and I’m sure I’ll have something to blog about tomorrow and the next day, but I’m not leaving until this afternoon and it’s because I’m having lunch with these guys.
These are some of the religious leaders in the interfaith group I meet with from time to time. In the top photograph you see Nathan Elmore (left), a Baptist campus minister at VCU; next to him is Imam Ammar Amonette, from the Islamic Center of Virginia; and on the right is Imad Damaj, President and founder of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs. In the bottom photo you can see Rabbi Ben Romer on the left, from Congregation Or Ami; Wallace Adams-Riley in the middle, Rector of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church; and on the right Bill Sachs, Executive Director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation. Bill is the one who calls us together on occasion to have lunch and talk about what we might do for the good of the city.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that if we want to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, we have to learn to get along with each other, and I mean all of us: people of different races, people of different classes, and people of different religions. I like the way Imad Damaj said it, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, made many people suspicious of Muslims. He said: “We have a new reality [in Richmond], and we either have to choose between being an inclusive, open place to all, or to continue in the lines of divisions and anxieties and intolerance that bring the worst out in us.” He added: “I think this diversity we have is going to bring out the best in us.”
That’s why, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, this group hosted a city-wide forum where we talked about the possibility of something more than “interfaith dialogue,” where people discuss the similarities and differences in their religions in an effort to promote understanding; we talked about “interfaith friendship,” where people of different religions try to break down the barriers that divide them and build bridges of genuine trust.
At one of our recent meetings I remembered a conversation I had with a man in one of my former churches who told me he wasn’t a racist, that he had “a lot of friends” who were black. “Do you ever have any of them over for dinner?” I asked, “because that’s what friends do: they eat together.” And so I’m going to postpone my departure for Roanoke long enough to have lunch with an imam, a rabbi, and a priest (sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?). I’m doing it because we’re trying to do much more than understand each other’s religions: we’re trying to become friends.
This is a different way of bringing heaven to earth than some would choose–where you convert everybody to your way of thinking and get rid of anybody who doesn’t look like you–but people have tried that way before and it didn’t work. Remember the Crusades? The Spanish Inquisition? The Third Reich?
I’m willing to give this way a try.