Usually suspicious emails from a pastor in Texas that read, “We’d like you to come on an interfaith trip to Abu Dhabi,” don’t turn out to be legitimate, especially when follow-up phone calls demand a copy of your passport and Social Security number.
But Rabbi Eli Freedman from Congregation Rodeph Shalom looked into it further — and it was real.
Freedman attended a three-day Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies conference in Abu Dhabi, where Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, a leader in the Islamic world promoting progressive Muslim values, annually invites American clergy of different backgrounds together to strengthen interfaith dialogue and the fight against Islamophobia.
Thirty Americans from 10 different cities traveled there — paid for in full by the government of the United Arab Emirates.
Every city brought a rabbi, an imam and a progressive Evangelical pastor.
The flight took 15 hours each way, and workshops on understanding each other’s religions were squeezed into a tight schedule.
Much of their time was spent in cohorts of three; Freedman’s counterparts were Imam Muhammad Abdulaleem from Masjidullah in West Oak Lane and Pastor Kevin Brown from The Perfecting Church in nearby Sewell, N.J.
(The building that houses Masjidullah used to be a church. Before that, it was a synagogue.)
This continuity played into the theme of the conference, but one activity stood out to Freedman: a workshop on stereotypes.
They divided into Jews, Christians and Muslims, and each sect was asked to explain how they would describe their faith, how they think others view their faith and how they describe other faiths.
The Christian group described themselves as “persecuted.”
“I’m sitting there seething in my chair like, ‘How can you say [that]?’” Freedman said. “‘You just got your president elected, you have more power in this country than anyone. Talk about privilege.
“You feel persecuted — dude, Jews and Muslims in America, what are you talking about?’”
Afterward, he asked a pastor about his group’s answers.
The pastor responded: “We’re not persecuted like you, but just because you’re persecuted doesn’t mean we can’t be persecuted, too. What we hear from our congregants is they don’t feel comfortable talking about their Christianity. If they’re at work and say something about it, people make fun of them. People call them crazy.
“People call them right-wing nutters.”
“To really understand that, even if I don’t agree with their politics or other things … was a really powerful learning for me,” he admitted.
“When you really get into these dialogues, it’s just incredibly powerful.”
The trip created an openness among the group, so open that Freedman joked to a pastor at the pool, “Don’t try to push me in and baptize me.”
Since the trip, the trio has spent a lot of time together, enjoying meals in each other’s homes with their families and planning upcoming interfaith discussions and shared worship.
The goal is to promote the work they learned from Bayyah, but also to expand interfaith dialogue within their own city.
Brown agreed that hearing each other’s perspectives were shocking, surprising and challenging.
“I was reminded of the African proverb: ‘When I saw them from afar, I thought they were a monster. When I saw them from up close, I thought it was an animal. And I got still closer and realized it was human, and when we got face-to-face, it was my brother.’
“I just thought that was so apropos,” he said.
Abdulaleem said the gathering of their families for iftar — the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan — was an important connection on a human level.
“These are the steps you hope that here in Philadelphia — the birthplace of our nation where religious freedom was articulated by Ben Franklin, William Penn, etc. — that we could demonstrate that we’re able to not only just have interfaith dialogues but interfaith engagement,” he said.
All 30 attendees will reconvene next year in Washington, D.C. to see how each city has grown and built bridges between these communities.
“I’m really excited to continue the dialogue,” Freedman said.
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