Loving the stranger: My trip to Abu Dhabi

Have you ever gotten one of those emails that said something like, “A Nigerian prince wants to send you $10,000 dollars; just send your bank account information and social security number…”

About 6 weeks ago, we got a call to the office here at RS that Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah of Abu Dhabi wanted to invite one of our clergy to be his guest in the United Arab Emirates and we had until the end of the day to let him know! We were sure it was a scam… But just in case it wasn’t, I did a little research, followed up, and made a few calls.  As you might have seen from my Facebook updates, it definitely was not a scam and with the unwavering support of our clergy and most importantly Laurel, I agreed to go. At around 2pm this afternoon, I returned from three of the most profoundly transformative days of my life. I want to share with you tonight of few of the powerful lessons that I learned. But first, a little background:

It all began over five years when Sheikh bin Bayyah, a former Vice President of Mauritania and foremost leading expert in Islamic law founded the Forum for Peace in Muslim Societies with the mission of protecting religious minorities in Muslim countries. The Sheikh held countless closed-door meeting with political and religious Muslim leaders from around the world, getting them to agree to his vision, rooted in Islamic law, of religious freedom. Then, in January of 2016, the Sheikh brought together “more than 250 Muslim religious leaders, heads of state, and scholars,” in Morocco to sign unto the Marrakesh Declaration which champions “defending the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.” If you’ve ever heard someone say, “Where are all the moderate Muslims, speaking out against radical Islam?” – This is your answer.

While Sheikh bin Bayyah was working with Muslim leaders across the globe, another religious leader was on a path of his own. Pastor Bob Roberts, an evangelical minister, who leads a megachurch of over 10,000 outside of Dallas, is creating what we might call the Reform Movement of the Evangelical church.  Evangelical churches in the US tend to be the most Islamophobic, often preaching hatred out of ignorance. However, Bob and his cohort of evangelical ministries are quite progressive in comparison and a growing minority in the church. Yes, they do want to convert everyone, and yes, they do think I am going to hell. But they are honest about it and they want to dialogue.

They understand that we disagree and that I will not convert and we are closer because of that conversation.

This year, in January, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., Pastor Bob, Sheikh bin Bayyah and the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks met and began talking. With the generous support of the Emirati government, they decided to bring together rabbis, imams, and evangelical pastors from 10 cities in the US to spread the Sheikh’s message of peace and understand to the US and the rest of the world.

During our three jam-packed days in Abu Dhabi our facilitators lead us in numerous exercises to prompt difficult conversations. The one that has stuck with me above the rest was one about perspective. We were divided up by religion and asked the following questions:

– How do you see your faith?

– How do you think Christians and Muslims see your faith?

– How do you see Christians and Muslims?

Many of the answers agreed; for example, we wrote that the Jewish community is highly organized and both the Christian and Muslim group wrote the same about us. However, there was one answer that really surprised me; the evangelical pastors wrote that they saw their faith as threatened. I was incredulous. Threatened?! Jews and Muslims are threatened. Evangelical Christians are the epitome of privileged. By all accounts, America is a Christian nation and evangelicals hold more political sway than any other demographic. “How could they have such a distorted sense of self,” I thought.

At dinner that night, sitting with a new evangelical pastor friend, I asked him what the group meant when they said they felt threatened. He said that many Christians in his community did feel threatened. They felt that they could not let their true beliefs about reproductive rights or marriage equality be known among their workplace colleagues for fear of being attacked. They spoke about being harassed on Facebook for their faith and about the assault on religious values by the growing secular majority in America.

This exercise in perspective made me think of this week’s Torah portion. Known as the holiness code, Kedoshim is, as Rabbi Kuhn likes to say, the physical and spiritual center of the Torah. We read in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And only a few verses later, we also read, (Leviticus 19:33) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were stranger in the land of Egypt.”

The first verse, “V’ahavta l’rei’echa k’mocha,” can just as easily be read, “Love your neighbor who is like yourself.” Reminding us that it is easy to love the one with whom we can empathize already – with whom we share perspective.

In contrast, the second command, “Love the stranger,” is followed by a rationale (unlike the previous) because we need to be reminded to put ourselves in the place of the other and see their perspective. Remember what it was like to be a stranger!

In a similar vein there is a story I learned this week from the Muslim tradition about a man named Joha who was walking along a river and saw another man on the far side. The man called out to Joha, “How do I get across to the other side?”

Joha responded, “You’re already on the other side.”

The ‘other’ is purely subjective – it is all about perspective.

There is so much more I want to tell you and there will be lots more opportunities for dialogue in the coming year.

Sheikh bin Bayyah left us with powerful words last night. He taught us about a verse in the Quran that also speaks of Jacob’s message to his sons before their journey. “Oh my sons, go out and do not despair, because only those who do not believe, despair.”

The Sheikh then offered us this blessing:

Do not despair. Believe that we can make this world a better place, a more virtuous place. May God bless all of you and give you success and guidance. May God helps us improve this human condition. And we call on the name of God, Peace, Peace, Peace.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon, May This Be God’s Will. Amen. Shabbat Shalom.