Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Eating (Not Insulting) Encourages Effective Interfaith Interactions

Yesterday I went to the library to try to get as much writing as possible done during the hour and a half my youngest is in preschool.  As I sat down, I made brief eye contact with a man sitting in the carrel diagonal from me, smiled, and started working.

You know how you can just tell when someone's looking at you?  Well, I could just feel him looking up at me every few minutes or so and finally he made a comment about the book I had with me, the second volume of Women of Faith in the Latter Days.  "That looks like some heavy research," he said.  "Oh, it's actually really good," I replied, in what I hoped was a friendly-but-not-interested-in-conversation voice.  Then after a pause he asked, "What religion are you?"  I looked up.  "I'm LDS -- Mormon."

His response?  "I'm so sorry."


Knowing that this would not be a productive conversation, I hoped to end it quickly.  I smiled.  "I'm not."  I looked back at my computer screen, but he wasn't quite ready to leave it alone.

"No, I'm really very sorry.  I've never met a Mormon that gave me any reason to think anything good about that sect," he continued.

"Well, that's too bad.  You haven't met the right ones, then."  I replied, still trying to focus on my writing.  "And then there's that false prophet..." he started.  Just then a friend of mine - also LDS, as it happens - came over and said hi and we had a nice conversation during which the "so-sorry" man left.  He did return a while later, but as he didn't say anything and I had to leave shortly thereafter, it was only minimally uncomfortable.

The contrast with my experience just the day before was striking.  On Sunday afternoon, I joined my mom, my sister and my sister's husband at the first (hopefully annual - or even more frequent?) Faith Feast: An Intercultural Progressive Dinner, put on by Spokane Faith and Values, a non-profit dedicated to increasing interfaith communication and understanding.

I've been interested in interfaith work for years, an interest that was piqued, though not initiated, by Project Conversion (see my posts here and here).  My sister and her husband recently joined the Spokane Interfaith Council at the request of the regional Public Relations representatives for our church.  So when we heard about the Faith Feast, we jumped at the chance to interact with those of other faiths in their holy places.

Mom, Meredith, and me outside
the Spokane Islamic Center
The evening began at the Spokane Islamic Center.  The women in our group of twenty-five or so covered our hair (I need to work on my scarf-wrapping skills as mine kept slipping back) and we entered the women's hall, where we met with three members of the mosque who told us about some of the basic tenets of Islam, including the daily prayers, submission to God's will, and eating only halal food.  (You can read this review I wrote a while back on a book about Islam.)  These three Muslim men were happy to answer our questions and engage in conversation about their faith, their worship, and their beliefs.  We also learned about the Muslim population of Spokane.  There are approximately 1200-1500 Muslims in our area, not counting students, from dozens of different countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  Several hundred attend the regular Friday services at the Center.  They were excited to report that after searching for years, they were finally able to hire an imam for the mosque just this March.

And then we ate.

It was just supposed to be appetizers at the mosque, but the table was practically groaning under the weight of all the appetizers.  Hummus and baba ghanoush (basically hummus made with eggplant instead of chickpeas), melt-in-your-mouth falafel, two different kinds of sambousa, homemade flatbread, a delicious salad, the list goes on and on.  Everything was delicious and I easily could have filled up right there, but managed to restrain myself and leave some room for the next stop.  The conversation - and eating - went on so long that we were late moving on to the second station of our dinner.

This is the only picture of food I got
the entire evening.  I kept forgetting
to snap a picture until I was halfway
through eating and by then it just
didn't look as pretty...
The entree portion of the progressive dinner was at the Sikh Gurudwara of Spokane.  As we arrived we were greeted with a expansive smile and a friendly hug by a man named Dev and everyone was directed to remove his or her shoes and cover his or her head.  We followed the amazing aroma to the langar, basically a community kitchen and dining area, in the basement of the temple.  Members of the Sikh congregation had prepared a full vegetarian meal including fruit, salad, rice, traditional bread and three different main dishes: a lentil soup, a chickpea curry, and a vegetable curry.  Again, it was tempting to go back for more, but I was already so full that it was hard to finish what I'd taken the first time around.  We jumped right in to eating and then had an informal Q&A session.

The Sikh Gurudwara (Temple) of Spokane
Sikhs are among the most visibly recognizable of faiths because adult Sikhs are never seen in public without their turbans.  Unfortunately, this visibility doesn't necessarily equate to an informed populace, and has resulted in Sikhs being targeted by those who are ignorant of their religion or who mistake it for Islam.  In addition to the turban, all observant Sikhs also wear a metal bracelet to remind them to use their hands only for good and righteous actions, and special underwear (Mormons aren't the only ones!).  There are about 150 Sikh families in the Spokane area and they open their langar to anyone in the community to come join in a meal after their services every Sunday.  I find much to admire among the Sikh people and religion, including a work ethic that puts the much-lauded Protestant work ethic to shame, and absolute equality of the sexes.  And you would be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming and friendly group.  With another round of hugs and handshakes, we were on our way to our third visit of the evening.

Millwood Presbyterian, just as the sun's setting
Our final stop was at Millwood Presbyterian Church.  Again, there was an entire table laden with delicious desserts and, even though I was already full, it would have been rude not to try some of, well, if not everything, several things, right?  Cookies, brownies, cakes, pies...it was scrumptious!  Our hosts spoke briefly about their pastor's focus on the spiritual aspects of food and eating together, as well as the many community and interfaith efforts in which their congregation participates, from hosting the Millwood Farmers' Market, to sponsoring a Boy Scout troop, to partnering with others to create a youth community center.  A gentleman shared three poems with us, one by an atheist, one by a Christian, and this one, which deeply moved me, by Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi, a Muslim:

Come, Come, Whoever You Are 
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

All three houses of worship we visited, Muslim, Sikh, and Presbyterian, were warm and inviting.  Every person we met, both our hosts and the others in the dinner group, were friendly, eager to share and willing to learn.  Rather than vague and unwelcome accusations, such as the ones I got from the man in my first story, there was open conversation, with sincere questions and helpful answers.  I'm so grateful to have had a chance to participate.  We need more events like this, more outreach to those of other faiths, more people willing to learn and to share.  Look around your own community for similar events, or perhaps organize one yourself, or simply look for ways to interact humbly and respectfully with those of other faiths.  (Just a hint: accosting busy people in the library and denigrating their religion may not be your best bet.)

1 comment:

  1. Emily, thank you so much for the wonderful account of your experience. You and your family do so many awesome things!I am actually jealous of your getting to eat mouth watering falafel (as well as so many other delicious dishes that you mentioned). I learned to love it when I was in Israel decades ago. I am so impressed with your invitation to join in events in our own area and if there are none, organize it. Lots of good food for thought if not action. :)