Sharing our Faith: Who is Our Neighbor?
Who is Our Neighbor?
I have always found the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, to be a haunting one. And, the second great commandment, that Jesus seemed to be particularly fond of, “Love your Neighbor as Yourself,” pretty challenging. Can you really love your neighbor as much as you love yourself? What if there are competing needs, as there frequently are? Different values or priorities? And, what if you don’t like yourself very much sometimes? How do you love others when you are often more aware of your shortcomings than your strengths?
These are questions that have shaped my life. I decided that perhaps becoming a “World Pilgrim” might help find some answers to these questions. So, in 2009, I joined a group of folks who call themselves, “World Pilgrims.” There are about 300 of us now. Most of us live in and around Atlanta, GA; some, however, have migrated to Tennessee, New York, and now to Virginia. Approximately, one-third of us are Christian, one-third Jewish, and one-third of us are Muslim.
World Pilgrims is a program founded in response to the terrible tragedy of 9/11. After that horrific event, three friends came together, a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Baptist minister, to grieve, to protect one another, and to determine how to move forward so that fear would not grip the faith communities of Atlanta and create further divides and hostilities. Instead of being angry and frightened, they sought ways to promote understanding, compassion, and lifelong friendships. They determined that if we could create enough space in our lives to spend time with one another, we could begin to understand each others’ stories. And, as we listen to these stories, we could truly build cohesion across historical divides of race, culture, and religion.
And so began the Interfaith Community Institute and the World Pilgrims. To be a World Pilgrim, involves making a commitment to journey with other Pilgrims who are self-identified as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. These journeys have taken folks to Spain, Morroco, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Columbus, GA, San Francisco, CA, Toronto, Canada, and now to South Africa. As I am speaking, there are approximately 25 Pilgrims traveling together across South Africa, sharing stories of family and self, and learning to appreciate the commonalities and differences in each others’ lives.
What exactly happens on these trips? Before starting our journey, we each receive a “dance card” with the name of each person on the trip. Everyday, we have a different dance partner, and for every 1-2 nights a different roommate. The partners and roommates are always of a different faith group. We make a commitment to intentionally spend time during the day with our dance partner. As we travel across the country on a bus or plane, we sit with one another, talk about ourselves, our families. We laugh together, sometimes cry together, pray together, and we always worship together. On each trip there is a Christian clergy, an Imam, and a Rabbi. Each leader, together with members of that faith group, plan a worship service in which all Pilgrims participate.
I have been on two pilgrimages—-the first to Turkey in 2009, and 6 weeks ago to San Francisco. In Turkey we travelled from East to West across the country along the Mediterranean Sea, stopping at sites like Ephesus, and listened to the echoes of preaching from the Apostle Paul. One of my dance partners was Dr. Gerald Durley, a very tall African American Baptist minister, who proudly wears a Martin Luther King medallion, having marched with Dr. King as a teenager. Sharing time with Dr. Durley leaves an indelible mark on your soul.
For the first time, the Interfaith Institute planned a “women’s only” journey to San Francisco. There were 19 of us. I’d like to tell you about 2 of my dance partners on this most recent trip. Rachel calls herself a “JewBu,” a Jewish Buddhist. She gets up every morning at 5 am to begin an hour-long silent meditation. Her father is a well-known professor of Judaism at Hebrew University. She herself was trained as an anesthesiologist; now her practice is Hospice Care. She transitioned to Hospice care when living in India. Because she could not speak the language, nor practice as an anesthesiologist, she decided that at least she could sit by the bedside of the dying and hold their hand. That act of compassion crosses all languages and faiths. She was the perfect dance partner to listen to the story of my mother’s recent death.
Alaa Naji, was my roommate for the first 2 nights. She is a single mother
of two adolescents, an Iraqi and practicing Muslim. Nine years ago in 2008, she, her mother, and children came to the U.S. as refugees. In Iraq, Alaa and her husband worked for the United Nations. Her husband was killed by a bomb in a terrorist attack; she and her children became targets for future attacks and encouraged to leave the country. When the U.S. opened its borders to Iraqi refugees, she and her children fled to the U.S. Today she manages a Women’s Refugee program in Atlanta and helps new refugees settle into very different lives.
Why these three faith groups as World Pilgrims? Because many years ago, Jews, Christians, and Muslims had the same ancestor, Abraham. Islam was founded by the descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael; Judaism and Christianity by descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac. We share family histories; we are connected through a common ancestor. Sites sacred to one faith group are often sacred to all three religions.
Being a World Pilgrim has taught me that we are all neighbors—often sharing common ancestors and common experiences, often traveling in the same places without realizing it. “Who is my Neighbor?” He or she is a reflection of me. I am kin to my neighbor and life involves a commitment to the struggle of loving and caring for oneself and for one’s neighbors.
May God help us to truly understand that the differences between our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, as well as all other neighbors, and ourselves only serve to enrich our lives, and not to divide.