Thursday, October 17, 2013

We are the Children of Abraham Bonnie Sue Lewis Dubuque, Iowa October 12, 2013 We are the Children of Abraham gathered together on an unusually warm October evening, in Dubuque Iowa. We are students, teachers, doctors, pastors, businessmen and women, infants and retirees. We are Muslims, Christians and Jews from around the world, and the nation, who find ourselves now living in the heartland of America. We are becoming family. The room buzzes with the friendly greetings of those who haven’t seen each other since our last gathering a month ago, and of those who see each other regularly at work or worship in their own faith communities. There is a sense of excitement and anticipation as we settle into our seats, coffee in hand, to listen to a Christian brother visiting from South Africa, Seth Naicker and his wife, Merrishia. They come to share about the work of God in reconciliation and inter-faith relationships taking place in post-apartheid South Africa. There is a hush as Dr. John Eby, professor of history at Loras College who is not only our host this evening, but the major convener and principle architect of the Children of Abraham, introduces the Naickers. Seth takes the mike and opens by turning us to our neighbors in a show of welcome: we clap, rub hands together and then extend them outward toward those next to us in a “shower of love.” We laugh, welcoming others around us in this manner, and then turn back to Seth. In a pastoral but prophetic voice, he draws us into his world of a nascent democracy with a long history of injustice and pain. But Seth’s words come to us as words of hope. He tells us the story of his memtor and long standing friend, Ismail Vadi, a Muslim, who participated as formal respondee in Seth’s ordination into Christian ministry on July 8th, 2007. He shares of Christians, Muslims and Hindus living together and building communities of support and caring in the midst of peoples still in need of healing and reconciliation who bear the scars of the divisions of apartheid. He speaks of sharing sacred spaces and coming together to pray with one another, regardless of religious affiliation. He calls us to resist a “lazy pluralism” for an “active solidarity” with those who seek God, and with whom we may differ in our understanding of God, but whom God has placed in our neighborhood. He closes in song, a witness to his faith in Christ Jesus and a hymn of praise to God’s glory. We are all moved. The three respondents are long-time members of the Children of Abraham: Dr. Adib Kassas, a psychiatrist with Medical Associates and Imam of the local Tri-States Islamic Center, Dr. Donald Wood, a Jewish professor of Spanish at Clarke University, and Dr. Bonnie Sue Lewis, a Presbyterian professor of mission at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. All three express their appreciation to their guests in behalf of the gathered community. Bonnie Sue lifts up Seth’s call for us to move beyond pluralism to solidarity, beyond toleration of one another to standing with one another. This is what Jesus calls us to: not just putting up with one another, but loving one another, turning the other cheek when wronged, praying for the one who suffers you harm. And this takes commitment to one another, taking opportunity to build relationships with one another, seeking to honor God and one another, as is what the Children of Abraham have been participating in over the last three years. Donnie Wood echoes the theme of our call to love and reconciliation as spelled out in the Talmudic texts. He affirms that what we do here is holy and a response to our love for God and God’s love for us. When Adib takes the mike, he expresses his profound gratitude for Seth’s encouragement to seek reconciliation, for his call to live in peace with one another, and for his witness to the fact that this is possible even in the face of grave injustice and suffering. A native of Syria, Adib acknowledges the sorrow and deep pain of his own people in the midst of his country’s disintegration into chaos. “How can we even begin to recover peace in Syria, heal the divisions, and forgive one another?” he asks plaintively. His cry is echoed by Dubuque seminary student, Gilo Agwa, a native of Ethiopia whose people, the Nuer, have suffered death at the hands of warring militias and who, himself is now in asylum in the U.S. “Where do we begin?” Both Seth and Merrishia respond by affirming what we are doing here, in this place. It is a beginning, an opportunity to build friendships and a safe place to get to know one another, overcome prejudices, listen to the “other.” It is the chance to move beyond stereotypes and enable trust in one another and in God to lead us in the pursuit of peace. Because God is a big God, this effort toward developing relationships of trust carries the potential of extending even beyond Dubuque. A series of conversations between Jews, Muslims and Christians, the Children of Abraham is open to the public of Dubuque. This is a small city of approximately 70,000 people, located on the Mississippi in a region where religious diversity is relatively new and traditional Christian culture is rooted deeply in society. The Children of Abraham was initiated through the establishment of personal relationships between specific individuals, some of which developed out of a weekly Qur’an study hosted by Loras College (a Catholic liberal arts college) that preceded the Children of Abraham series. A few individuals agreed that they would like to try to create a public conversation between differing faith traditions as a way to model civil discourse, facilitate learning about other religious perspectives, and, most importantly, build positive, strong relationships between people of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. The Children of Abraham has been meeting monthly for three years, with an average attendance of about 70. The conversations it facilitates are thematically organized. There is always a speaker from each of the three Abrahamic traditions, sometimes men, sometimes women, of varying ages and ethnic backgrounds. Participation is encouraged by including questions for discussion, and lively conversation is the norm. The program, however, views listening as the most important tool in relationship-building and therefore each host consistently reminds participants that the event is not a debate. There is no effort to convert or proselytize. Each speaker (and each person in the room) is simply speaking out of his or her own experience of a faith tradition, not speaking for that faith tradition. A final but crucial aspect of the Children of Abraham program has been that most of its meetings are hosted in sacred spaces, in various houses of worship – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. This helps to transform the image of such spaces from something uncertain and divisive to a place that is welcoming and knowable. As this evening’s meeting closes, many gather around the Naickers to express thanks. Plans are made for next month’s gathering, dinner invitations are extended, Adib invites Seth to speak at Friday prayer at the mosque. We are the Children of Abraham seeking to glorify God by loving God and all of God’s children.

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