Ten rabbis, ten imams and ten evangelical ministers board planes to Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the Government of the United Arab Emirates… Sounds more like an overwrought joke at a UN reception than an attempt at achieving world peace. But there we were, 30 American clergy from ten pilot cities, overcoming fears and prejudice where the rubber of faith meets the road of possibility.
The goals were deceptively simple, though such illusions often mask the hard realities of the work of peace: To bring together those who often fail to hear, understand or even know one another on the other side of the earth in a place fairly foreign to all in the hopes of producing something outside of the box when we were outside of our daily lives.
Sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of the UAE, this ongoing process emerged from the efforts of Dallas Evangelical Megachurch Pastor Bob Roberts and the eminent Islamic sage Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah. For the pastor, it was his sometimes quixotic, but passionately authentic attempt to counter the pernicious Islamophobia stoked by most of his colleagues. For the sheik, it was a vaunted desire to convey a moderate approach to Islam from within, combatting the extremism, ignorance and intolerance that plagues so many of his coreligionists. And for the rabbis…well, let’s just say that if both groups can find accord with the Jews in light of our histories, achieving this utopian goal would be that much easier to attain.
We agreed to put aside the harder issues: the Mideast conflict, evangelical proselytizing, and the role of women to name just a few. Yet this was no mere avoidance of challenge, but rather a realization that nothing can be accomplished until we get back to the basics of knowing one another, learning to trust one another, and ultimately loving one another.
The hope was to leverage relationships through inverting the common approach to interfaith relations. First we would start with our hands, working together on key projects in our communities. Then we would create a basis for the heart, forging relationships of mutual respect and recognition of our essential humanity out of our shared efforts. And then, perhaps, we could discuss matters of the head, affirming common insights and conceding distinct matters of theology in the purified spirit of learning from each other without ulterior motives or hidden agendas.
Each city triad committed to:
- Breaking bread in one another’s homes.
- Bringing our congregations together toward shared work in our communities.
- Recreating our experience in Abu Dhabi with a widening circle of clergy.
- Standing by one another at times of crisis, attack or in response to other acts of intolerance.
I gleaned much from this experience, more than I could have imagined. But the biggest take-away for me, aside from a deepening of my regard for Islam and the majority of its peace-loving practitioners, was the dispelling of my stereotypes about Evangelical Christians. While my interfaith efforts have encompassed enriching, ongoing bonds with Mainstream Protestants and Catholics, I have neglected opportunities for outreach to Evangelicals, assuming the chasm dividing us on social and political issues rendered partnerships untenable.
Not only did I learn that Evangelicals are anything but monolithic in their views and priorities, but even those articles of faith that seem to divide us leave ample room for reciprocity of respect and abiding friendship. My newly discovered brother in faith, Pastor Dean Curry of the Tacoma Life Center, taught me much through his efforts and his example. I look forward to working with him and our friends in the Muslim community to extend the spirit of Abu Dhabi to the Puget Sound Region and beyond. With so many in the world exuding the toxicity of hate and the virus of religious violence, I am deeply appreciative for the immense hospitality and generosity of the UAE government, the gentle, incisive wisdom and vision of Sheik Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the openness of heart of all of my fellow participants. May the spirit of our few days together inspire our efforts and deepen our commitment, radiating a love for peace that will transcend our current moment and unfinished world. If you’d like to see more of my daily impressions and some accompanying photos, see my Facebook Blog: https://www.facebook.com/RadbamInTheUAE.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner