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.

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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.”