“Tell me,” she asked, “what is the essence of your religion?”
“Loving God and loving one another, “ I replied.
“And we demonstrate our love for God and neighbor by working to assure dignity, equality, freedom and justice for all,” I added.
“Islam is the same,” Jilda responded. “We love God and others.”
We were having the usual 8:30 p.m. dinner when Jilda asked me some challenging questions. The 18-year-old hostess—all the while engaging in conversation—had prepared the meal with ease and skill with the dishes made to perfection. Of course the meal included traditional Georgian food and her father brought out the wine.
“We are Muslim, we are also Georgian,” “ he said as he raised a toast to me, my family, my country and my religion.
The meal included many toasts, an exchange of songs (her father was quite the musician!) and words of gratitude for our country’s having come to Georgia’s aid in 2008. Jilda’s brother, who had been minding the family market, came into the dining room to speak to his father and sister. Before leaving, he also picked up a glass of wine and offered what sounded more like a blessing than a toast, and then returned to his duties. Without asking, I knew I was the first U.S. visitor to their household. Little did they know students from Mercer University would be arriving within a couple of weeks!
This young woman who, last year, had taught me the Muslim prayer and given testimony of her love of God, and how her disciplined life of prayer was grounded on that love, was now asking me to teach her about my religion—my faith. Translating everything I said for her father, she didn’t hesitate to affirm our two faiths share essential values and teaching: loving God and loving neighbor. He nodded as he listened to her translation.
The questions continued as she asked me about my work. I showed her pictures from the Alliance annual gathering where I was assisting in leading communion. An aha expression appeared on her face; something had registered. She has lived under the influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church long enough to recognize the priestly vestments and the Eucharistic table. Not only were they entertaining their first U.S. guest, but their guest was a woman of priestly status.
We were sharing a meal in a country where up until 2011 some religious minority groups were not legally recognized as legitimate ones by the government and were thereby denied legal protection. We were sharing a meal where the Georgian Orthodox Church has failed to acknowledge the Armenian Orthodox or the Syrian Orthodox Churches as rightfully orthodox. We were sharing a meal where worshipers of many faiths have been victims of radical violence by church leadership. Even though I was a church leader, I was a welcome guest.
“Tell me about your organization,” Jilda requested. And I began to talk about the Alliance’s commitment to religious liberty; separation of church and state; partnership and friendship in our approach to mission; full welcome of all persons, without distinction; and our commitment to social justice, ecumenical and interfaith relationships. Immediately after translating for her father, Jilda turned to me and said, “I want to be a part of your organization.”
I was speechless and yet at the same time filled with joy. An 18-year-old Muslim young woman is interested in joining her energy with the Alliance’s energy to create a better world for herself, her family, and Muslim people in Georgia.
Back at home I ponder how to make Jilda’s desire reality. Surely, I think, it should be simple, and yet it seems complex. Christians and Muslims joining hearts and hands around the world, loving God and loving others. Let it be so. Amen.