A rabbi, an imam and a Baptist minister walk into a university auditorium.
No, this isn’t the start of a bad joke. It’s just what happened this past Thursday evening on the campus of Mercer University in Macon, Ga., (and probably happens in more places around the country than cable news or social media would have us believe) in what was a lovely, if uneventful, evening of conversation and mutual admiration.
I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion on Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations with Rabbi Larry Schlesinger of Temple Beth Israel here in Macon, and Imam Adam Fofana of the Islamic Center of Middle Georgia, based out of Centerville, just south of here. The panel was called “Judeo-Christian-Islamic Values: One God!,” and was the first in a series of events sponsored by the Department of Global Studies at Mercer called “Muslims in America.” While the other events will feature scholars and offer a more academic perspective, this event intentionally featured active clergy from within their respective faith communities.
And as I said, the evening was at the same time lovely and uneventful, but given the state of things, there was a certain loveliness to the fact that it was so uneventful. In fact, as far as I’m concerned this may have been the real, if perhaps unstated, goal of the evening: to show what a civil, and even warm, conversation among three leaders of differing faiths can look like. Or for some, that such conversation is even possible. This wasn’t a thread of ill-informed and ill-spirited Facebook posts underneath an antagonistic meme. None of the panelists began their remarks with, “Well, I heard on (insert dubious news source) the other day that (insert “other” religious group) really believe (insert damaging claim).” No one was armed, conversion was not even at the bottom of the agenda, and if the crowd was treated to any red meat that evening, they ordered it themselves at dinner afterward.
No, this was just conversation. But there were some lovely moments, most of which were courtesy of Imam Fofana. Two in particular come to mind.
The first actually came at a lunch meeting a few weeks before when we met to discuss the panel. Imam Fofana shared with us a recent conversation he had with his daughter, who is in elementary school. She came to him one day with a concerned look on her face and asked him, “Daddy, are we going to have to leave the country?” Surprised, he asked her what she was talking about. She said, “Mr. Trump on the TV said that he was going to send all the Muslims away. So are we going to have to leave?” “No,” he told her, “we won’t have to leave our home.”
“She should be worrying about having fun and doing well in school,” he told us, more disappointed than anything else. “Not worrying about losing her home.”
Jesus said that if you want to know what the Kingdom of God looks like, go find a child. He said nothing about the child’s faith of origin. We would all do well to remember that.
The second moment came in Imam Fofana’s response to the question posed to each of us, “How does your tradition teach you to relate to different faiths and to those who practice them?” He pointed out that the Quran speaks very highly of both Judaism and Christianity and is particularly complementary of Moses and Jesus, and that this should be the starting place for any Muslim in interfaith dialogue. But then he paused and said, “You have to understand, what we are experiencing now is perhaps the worst period in the history of our faith. Imagine the pain of seeing your religion hijacked by those who do not understand it, and who would do such harm in its name.”
I don’t know what scholars of Islam would say about this claim about now being the “worst” period in Islam’s history; perhaps it is. And even at the time I remember feeling a bit embarrassed that he would feel compelled to even remotely apologize for the actions of those who are so clearly practicing a faith different than his own. Even worshipping a far different God, I would say.
But what I do know is that in this moment of humanity, this Christian saw a glimpse of the divine. And remembering that no faith has that market cornered will be my starting place for inter-faith dialogue.
No, by today’s heat-not-light standards, Thursday’s panel was unremarkable. More than anything it felt like the beginning of a conversation, not the end. But given the lack of honest conversation these days, especially between people of faith, perhaps that’s saying something.