At sunset, there will be a signal, and everyone will take a date or a candy from the middle of the table and break the fast. (Children often sneak candies before sunset while the adults pretend not to notice.) After this there's a call to prayer and everyone moves into another room for the prayer service. The men pray up front and the women pray in back, everyone face down and turned toward Mecca.
With the prayers done, everyone returns to the dining area and eats the meal, which is delicious as always. Polite conversation ensues between guests and hosts. What's your name? Where do you live? (This year we sat with a gentleman who grew up in Bridgewater, attended Rutgers University, and now lives in Somerset. I'm pretty sure I sat with him the first year we came too.)
The whole evening is congenial and pleasant, but when it's over, we've built no bridges, and closed no gaps. Our communities are still separate from one another, our knowledge of our respective faiths is no deeper than it was before, and that great interfaith moment still hasn't arrived.
Meanwhile the hatred and Islamophobia that has permeated our nation for at least the past 11 years is as strong as ever. This interfaith event, which we attended to light a candle against the darkness, seems weak and pallid. What can it possibly do to thwart a Christian nationalist with a gun?
Never mind the nightmare scenarios, what about the smaller hatreds? For all our pretty words, I'm certain that if the preacher's son at my church attended one of these events and began a spiritual odyssey that led him to convert to Islam, there would be a strong negative reaction from some quarters of our church. A few people would affirm his right to self-determination if not his actual decision, but others would feel hurt, angry and betrayed. Some might even call for removing the pastor as unfit for the job.
I know very little about the internal culture of the local mosque, but I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happened should a family member of the hafiz convert to Christianity.
As we all attest at these interfaith events, Islam, Judaism and Christianity do have a lot in common. All three are Abrahamic religions, for starters, tracing a common spiritual heritage to a nomadic Hebrew who lived 3,500 years ago and worshiped one god. Our sacred books tell many of the same stories, about Noah and the Flood, God calling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Solomon and his wisdom, and more.
But for all that we have in common, there remain impressive gaps that keep us separate. Even when our different sets of Scriptures align with one another, our understanding of what they mean often will disagree. All three religions place a premium on peace, but the 1500 to 2000 years of history that we share are marred by bigotry, conflict and even outright war. And, amazingly, we can't even agree what monotheism looks like.
When the evening comes to an end, my hosts at the Islamic center and I are still strangers to one another, belonging to two separate communities that live side by side and rarely interact.
We need to stop waving the Mission Accomplished banners at these events. They're just the start.
I do have hope that we can forge a deeper interfaith connection. The director of the Islamic center laments that his children don't know the Beatles. I've heard Muslim congregants lament when speakers take too long that the food is getting cold, and I've watched as teens in hijab text their friends on the phone during the recitation of the Quran.
With minor variants, these are all things that happen in churches all over America. They seem minor and inconsequential, but they all speak to our common humanity. For all the differences in our religious beliefs, we're all weighted down by the same concerns, faced with the same distractions, and led ever onward and ever upward by the same insatiable longing for purpose and meaning.
It's a mystery how it works, but with effort we can find common cause in our common questions. Even if the answers each of us finds don't satisfy us all equally, still we can learn to appreciate the value others do see in them. Like everything of value, it won't come in just one evening. It will take work, and it will take time – a whole lifetime, to be exact – of respect, listening and open conversation.
As my family left the iftar Sunday night, the director of the Islamic center intercepted us at the door and invited us to come back for Family Night. It involves a talk or sermon, followed by group discussion. He stressed the other parts as well, such as the food and childcare. I joked later to my wife "We've been tagged as potential converts." (I'm sure that's not the main intent. He's probably just noticed we come whenever we're invited.)
So I find as I leave the iftar that I am given the answer to the quandary I mulled when I entered. Want to gain understanding and build bridges with the local Muslim community? Want to dispel stereotypes and poke a finger in the eye of those who peddle hate?
Family night is the fourth Friday of the month. Discussion and dinner start at 7:30 p.m., and child care is provided. This year the talks are based on "Treatise for the Seekers of Guidance," by Imam al-Muhasibi. I have no idea what that means.
I guess I'll find out on Friday.
Copyright © 2019 by David Learn. Used with permission.