“I mean no disrespect. But how can we get that message out of the university and onto the streets where it needs to be?”
He asked the question in a sparsely furnished and worn room that the pre-event publicity labelled a conference room. It reminded me more of an old church basement than a conference room even though we sat at street level. The speaker was an African-American man, 60, give or take, blue jeans, long sleeved t-shirt and outdoorsy vest, a traditional Muslim head-covering. The event was the book signing for Three Testaments, a single volume that includes English translations of the Torah, the Gospel (Christian New Testament), and the Koran. Interspersed is a collection of historical, hermeneutical, and contextual essays.
A panel of experts, two professors, a rabbi who also was a part-time seminary professor, and a Muslim translator, had each given their take on the project. The event intended to market the book; each panelist gave his or her own positive spin, though each managed to point out the ambitious nature of the project and the inherent limitations. And each pointed to the importance of the three religions understanding each other and dialoguing about both their differences and their similarities.
That’s the context for the question. “How can we get that message out of the university and onto the streets where it needs to be?”
I thought it was not only a poignant question, but a real-life question. It’s a question I ask a lot, especially given the escalation of conflict in the Middle East, the level of religious misunderstanding in our own country, and the increasingly uncivil character of our civil exchanges. I, too, mean no disrespect, but the particular “experts” really had no idea how to answer the question. While they acknowledged the importance of getting the dialogue into the streets, they had no substantive answer for how to do it.
I do. Not because I’m smart or particularly capable, but because I’ve had the good fortune of being involved in broad-based community organizing. Organizing grows out of the fundamental assumption of the importance of relationships. I meet with you one-one-one and hear what’s important to you, what makes you tick. You hear the same from me. Because we live in the same community, we discover that we have common interests and concerns. You and me, my organization and your organization, we discover that we can get some things done together that we could never do individually. And in the growth of the relationship and the mutual work, we come to a mutual respect. And we find opportunities to have dialogue about our deepest beliefs, even though we confess very different religions.
In the congregation I serve, we have developed good relationships with several Muslim congregations and a Jewish synagogue (the one in the western suburbs of Chicago). We have worked together on projects of mutual benefit to our institutions and our community. When we decided to fill a semi-trailer with food to send to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, the local Muslim school contributed the most to the project. When we began an ESL class on Monday nights, the high school students from the Muslim congregation swelled the ranks of the tutors.
Because of the relationship, and the trust developed in working together, we’ve had several opportunities to dialogue our our religious beliefs, both the similarities and differences. And the conversation happened in the context of trust rather than suspicion. And that makes a world of difference.
It’s always about relationships, isn’t it?