Actors on the world stage have the capacity to transform lives and open vistas with plain words and simple gestures. Who can forget President Reagan standing with the Brandenburg Gate as backdrop on June 12, 1987? In rhetoric blazoned in human consciousness he altered world events: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Pope Francis seems to have dramatically altered Middle East politics as well. Who can forget that photo of his apparently unscripted stop en route to Bethlehem? At yet another wall dividing warring factions, Francis achieved something remarkably simple with astonishing power. Francis touched the wall, bent his head and prayed. After kissing the wall, he walked slowly back to his vehicle.
Last evening we attended the Abrahamic Traditions Dinner sponsored by the local chapter of the Niagara Foundation. As the name suggests the annual event is an occasion for Muslims, Jews and Christians to come together in faith to share a meal and conversation.
The dinner was officially sponsored by six “usual suspects” – the Jay Phillips Center at the University of St. Thomas, a Jewish community relations group, the Islamic Center, etc. Held in a ballroom of the St. Paul campus student center of the U of M, we enjoyed an atmosphere that was anything but “formal” and certainly not stuffy!
The dinner was free and no appeal for contributions was made. The food was paid for, prepared and served by the local Turkish American Society (the Turkish community in MSP numbers a surprisingly small 1500 people). My favorite was the hand wrapped grape leaves and the exquisitely sweet yet crisp baklava!
Of course, we expressed frustration with the intransigence of issues that have long divided the Abrahamic religions. Prayers were sung in Hebrew and Arabic. Truths were told and acknowledged. There were no diplomatic breakthroughs or moments emblazoned in world consciousness.
Mostly, we shared stories – expressions of hope and experiences of simple decency, sacred stories. An Egyptian told of Christian neighbors sheltering their frightened children on 9/11. A Jewish man found common ground with Muslims around what it means to be a religious minority in America. We shaped plans for Christians to share a day of fasting during Ramadan concluding with a shared meal after sunset.
No grand proclamations to world leaders. No dramatic photo ops here will light up cyber-space. Perhaps the most we can claim is fulfillment of the dinner’s 2014 theme: Neighbors & Neighborhoods. The descriptors Muslim and Jew now have names – Ozer, Murat, Hamdy, Jamilah, Serkan.
We cannot change the world! But, we can change our world. Last evening in Saint Paul we did just that – with plain words and simple gestures we tore down a few walls!