KOH2RVA: Day 184

don't hateLast night I went to something called an “Interfaith Friendship Dinner” in the Adams Room at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. There were about 30 people there, mostly Episcopalians, with a generous number of Muslims, Baptists, and Presbyterians mixed in (the Jewish delegation had to cancel at the last minute due to illness).

Why interfaith friendship, and why at a Baptist church? I stood at the podium last night and explained it like this:

“There is a story in the Christian tradition about a time when an expert in the law of Moses asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus said, ‘You’re the expert. What do you think?’ and the lawyer said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘Good answer!’ Jesus said. ‘Do that and you will live.’ But the lawyer asked (and I’m sure you’ve heard this part before), ‘Who is my neighbor?’ And Jesus told a story in which the example of ‘neighbor’ was a Samaritan: someone who shared a common religious ancestry with the Jews, but who was of another faith. And that’s us, isn’t it? Jews, Christians, and Muslims can all trace their religious ancestry back to Abraham. Although our paths have diverged since then and we claim different faiths I think Jesus would say that we are still ‘neighbors’ and still bound by the obligation to love each other. But we can’t love what we don’t know and that’s why we’re having dinner tonight: to get to know each other so that we can come to love each other.”

Several others stepped up to the podium after that including Bill Sachs from St. Stephens Episcopal Church who has been doing interfaith work for years. “Those of us who invited you here tonight don’t have any master plan,” he said, “no grand design. Our goal is interfaith friendship.” Wallace Adams-Riley from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church echoed those sentiments, as did Ammar Amonette from the Virginia Islamic Center and Alex Evans from Second Presbyterian Church. But Imad Damaj, a professor at VCU and a tireless advocate for interfaith understanding, said, “We do have a master plan. We want to see Richmond united. And one of the things that threatens to divide it is religion.”

That’s true, isn’t it? The same kinds of tensions that once existed between Christians and Jews in this country now exist between Christians and Muslims, and some of the emails that are forwarded to me by well-meaning church members don’t help. But what we did last night helps. Sitting around the tables, breaking bread together, talking about our common struggles, bursting out laughing—these things help us get to know each other and as we do the possibility emerges that one day, if we keep it up, we might learn to love each other,

Just as Christ commanded.

KOH2RVA: Day 158

ShawarmaYesterday was Ash Wednesday, and often on that day I fast—that is, I “go without food for religious reasons.” Last year, for example, I promised myself that every time I felt a hunger pain on Ash Wednesday I would think “Jesus is Lord,” to remind myself that my stomach is not.

I was going to do that again yesterday but when I checked my calendar I saw that I had already made plans to have lunch at the Old Jerusalem restaurant, and so I shrugged my shoulders and let out a half-hearted sigh. “Looks like I’m not going to be able to fast today,” I said, to no one in particular. “I forgot that it was Ash Wednesday when I made the appointment and now it’s too late. I can’t very well call off lunch, and it would be rude to sit there and watch my guest eat while I didn’t.”

Plus, I love the Old Jerusalem.

It’s near the intersection of 7th and Franklin downtown, just a few steps up the hill and to your left. There’s a sign on the front door that says “Halal,” which is the Muslim equivalent of “Kosher.” One of the things I love about the restaurant is that you can take your Muslim or Jewish neighbors there without any fear of offending their dietary restrictions. There’s no pork on the menu, and no alcohol either. Everything is prepared according to the traditions of the Middle East, which is home to both Muslims and Jews.

For all of those reasons, it’s where I usually meet with my interfaith group. We sit at a big table near the window, and the owner brings out platters of hummus and warm pita bread to get us started. Soon we are munching on (delicious!) falafel, digging into hearty beef and chicken shawarma, and finishing up with hot tea and “ladies fingers” for dessert. Throughout the meal we are talking and laughing and making wild gestures, often to the servers to bring us more food. It’s fun.

Which is part of the reason I was there yesterday.

The owner, a smiling, gregarious Jordanian named Tahir, wants to renovate the restaurant. He wants to create the kind of ambiance that will attract the dinner crowd (right now the Old Jerusalem looks a whole lot more like a lunch place than a dinner place). But it’s going to cost some money and he’s having trouble getting a loan. He was in the construction business before this and went bankrupt when the economy crashed in 2008.

That’s where Jeff Dortch comes in.

Jeff is a member of First Baptist Church who used to be a banker. One of the things he does is consult with church members who have fallen on hard times. He takes a look at their finances and helps them come up with strategies to get back on their feet. I took him to lunch with me to see if he had any suggestions for Tahir.

Tahir greeted us with a smile. He seated us at a booth. He asked the waitress to bring out some hummus and warm pita. And then he told Jeff his story, complete with his plans for renovation. You could see his eyes sparkle as he described the stonework, the arches, and the fountain he hoped to put against one wall. When he went back to the kitchen Jeff told me quietly that restaurants were notoriously bad investments. He wasn’t sure he would be able to help Tahir. But he also agreed, as he took another bite, that the falafel was delicious.

Why am I telling this story on the 158th day of KOH2RVA, our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia? Because my friend Imad Damaj (a VCU professor) knew a Muslim brother who was struggling to keep his restaurant going. He invited Bill Sachs (an Episcopal priest) and me (a Baptist pastor) to join him for lunch. He introduced us to Tahir and asked if we knew any way to help. I got in touch with Jeff Dortch and took him to lunch at the Old Jerusalem.

I don’t know what will come of it all, if anything, but at the heart of it is one person trying to help another, and reaching out through friendship to another person, and then another. It’s the stuff the parable of the Good Samaritan is made of,

And the stuff of which heaven is made.

————————————————

Click HERE to see the Yelp! reviews of the Old Jerusalem, remembering that there will be at least one crank in every bunch who loves to complain.  And think about this: if you’ve ever been to the Holy Land consider hosting a reunion lunch or dinner at the Old Jerusalem.  As the sign above the door says, it’s “A Taste of the Holy Land.”

KOH2RVA: Day 65

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.

The Kind of World I Want to Live in

Thanks to my colleague Bob Browning for this story from September 11, 2001, and for the commentary that follows:

Usman Farman, a twenty-two-year-old Muslim of Pakistani descent worked in Building 7 of the World Trade Center. His office was a stone’s throw from the Twin Towers. After the second plane hit, Farman made his way down twenty-seven flights of stairs to the street. He had walked two or three blocks when the first tower collapsed.

“The next thing I remember,” he said, “was a dark cloud of debris about fifty stories high came tumbling toward us. I ran as fast as possible, but fell down trying to get away. I was on my back, facing this massive cloud that must have been 600 feet away. Everything was already dark and people were running by me. Then, help came from the most unexpected place.”

Farman said he always wore a pendant around his neck inscribed with an Arabic prayer for safety.  He said a Hasidic Jew came up to him and held the pendant in his hand. He read the Arabic aloud and with a deep Brooklyn accent said, “Brother, if you don’t mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand and let’s get out of here.” Together, arm in arm, this Muslim and Jew made their way to safety.

This is the kind of world I want to live in and want to help build. I believe you do, too. We experienced it in this country for about three days after 9/11. America unlocked its gates and became the caring community all of us needed.

Strangers hugged, families took in stranded passengers when airports shut down, neighbors checked on each other and churches filled with worshipers seeking solace and courage.

What keeps us from living this way all the time?

Getting to Know You

If men could only know each other, they would neither idolize nor hate. 
                                                                              —Elbert Hubbard

———————————————

Articles in last week’s Time magazine and the August 23rd edition of the Washington Post hint at a growing anti-Muslim sentiment among Americans.  Or maybe I should say “anti-Muslims” sentiment—plural—because that’s part of the problem.  When you lump people together you tend to stereotype, and judge the whole group on the behavior of a few. 

It’s happened to me. 

Three decades ago a Southern Baptist evangelist named Bailey Smith said publicly, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”  He claimed that he said it “with all due respect to those dear people,” but last Sunday afternoon I was invited to an open house at a local synagogue where I got the feeling that some of those dear people had not forgotten what he said.  They greeted me warmly, thinking I might be a prospect, but when I introduced myself as pastor of First Baptist Church there was a brief  pause and then the question: “Are you…Southern Baptist?”

This kind of thing happens to me often, and not only in Jewish synagogues.  Because some Baptists have done or said offensive things, many people assume that all Baptists are like that.  I encourage them to get to know some Baptists, because no two of us are exactly alike.  Billy Graham is a Baptist, but so is Bill Clinton.  Jesse Helms was a Baptist, but so is Jesse Jackson.  Lottie Moon was a Baptist, but so is Britney Spears.

See what I mean? 

I would guess that the same is true for Muslims, that if we would take the time to get to know some of them we would find that they are like people everywhere: concerned for the health and well-being of their families, for their children’s education, and for the freedom to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life, like a picnic lunch on the Fourth of July.  And in the same way I wouldn’t want anyone to judge me on the basis of the worst they have ever heard about Baptists, I wouldn’t want to judge an entire religion or its 1.5 billion adherents on the basis of what some Muslims have done, would you?

So, get to know your new Muslim neighbor.  You may find that he has as much in common with Osama bin Laden as I have in common with Britney Spears, which is to say…not much.

BONUS: Here’s a song that will have you humming the rest of the day.