At least once a year when I have to preach on the great story of Pentecost, I sit at my desk wondering what that must have sounded like. The story in the Christian scriptures tells how the followers of Jesus were stuck indoors waiting for instructions about what to do next after Jesus had returned to the Father. The writer of Luke-Acts describes the sound of a rushing wind enveloping the room. Later in the day, those same Jesus-followers took it to the streets and there began telling the story of Jesus to the visitors who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I try to imagine the buzz on those Jerusalem byways as people from all over the world heard the proclamation in their own languages.
I caught a glimpse of the Pentecost phenomena on Sunday afternoon at the “Know Your Muslim Neighbor” Solidarity Event on Sunday afternoon. The event was sponsored by DuPage United, our local Industrial Areas Foundation community organizing affiliate. 850 people showed up. Yeah, I know. Amazing, right?
The numbers were impressive. But it’s not the raw number that is the important thing here. It’s what the numbers stand for and what happened. That many people showed up on a Sunday afternoon when they didn’t really know what was going to happen. What is a “Solidarity Event” anyway?
I have a hunch why our Muslim neighbors showed up. There is some measure of fear in the Muslim community. And with good reason. Too much of the hate-filled rhetoric coming from public figures is directed at them. They hear the language and see they the footage on television. Two days before our event, three Muslim teenagers were shot execution-style in Fort Wayne, Indiana. More importantly, they experience it in their daily life. One woman told a story of making phone calls for the PTA at her child’s school. The mom on the other end of the line asked her where she came from – she was born in America, by the way – and then proceeded to tell her that she didn’t belong here; she should go home. A Pew research poll a few years ago indicated that nearly 60% of Americans believe that Islam and American values are at odds. Yet 60% also admit to never having met a Muslim. My experience – at the event on Sunday also demonstrated – is that Muslims are eager to make connections and to dispel the stereotypes. The best way I can think of to do that is one person at a time.
But why would the Christians and Jews show up? I’m not exactly sure. But when I have talked with a few members of my congregation, they came because they don’t like what they see. The division and rancor in the national conversation disturbs tem. They don’t know what to do but they want to do something. So they showed up. And without exception, they have reported what a meaningful experience it was.
This event was designed and planned for the primary purpose of making connections across the communities, communities diverse in religion and culture, but communities that share so much in common. We believed that if we could get people into the same room talking to each other, we could begin to dispel the stereotypes. We also wanted to make a public statement – directed especially at public officials and the media – that we will not tolerate hate-filled, prejudice-laced rhetoric.
The program wasn’t fancy. There were some introductory remarks, and a series of three speakers, each of whom spoke for 5 minutes. But the speakers weren’t the central focus. Between each of the speeches, the participants were invited to turn to their neighbor and hold conversation on a particular question. They questions were not particularly deep; they were not controversial. They were simply doorways into a one on one, human contact that is the fundamental building block of human society. Judging by the response of the folks on Sunday afternoon, it’s something that people are craving, even though the contact happened to be with perfect strangers.
In the last few days, I keep hearing powerful testimony of what happened in the conversations. Muslims told their stories of experiencing harassment and prejudice; non-Muslims learned and sometimes were shocked to hear that in this country where we supposedly honor the value of religious freedom, our fellow citizens do not feel free to practice their religion. A clergy colleague wrote me that she and a young Muslim woman sitting next to her realized at one point that they were both crying. The tears were partly sadness at the way things are, but they were also tears of hope at what might be, hope embodied by 850 people sitting together making conversation.
When small seemingly insignificant conversations become powerful moments for people, it says something. It’s worth noticing. It’s work that is fundamental to repairing the fabric of our society. We have a fundamental need to get beyond the isolation and division. We need a vision of what e pluribus unum might look like in the 21st century. That vision will not be enacted by politicians passing legislation; it won’t be happen by activists marching in public places. It will happen as we engage the long, slow, sometimes difficult, and ultimately rewarding and healing work of relating person to person, congregation to congregation. It will happen as we build those relationships, build our power, and then begin to take action.
In both the ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek language, the words nephesh and pneuma can be translated variously: Spirit, wind, breath. Gathering in that room on Sunday afternoon, as folks used their breath to engage in conversation, it sounded like the rush of a mighty wind. And I’m convinced it was the voice of the Spirit.