Friday, February 20, 2009

Interfaith Dialogue

Once again, sorry you get a three-peat, but life is, eh? This is my newsletter article for both my congregation here and at home. A quick story from an absolutely AMAZING trip to Cairo, Egypt to visit dear friends, see some pyramids, and learn, learn, learn!!!!!

My recent trip to Cairo was filled with more sights and sounds (and smells) than I ever thought eight days could hold. A wonderful time of both rest and rejuvenation, to recount all of the stories would take too long, but there is at least one story I would like to take the time to share with you.

I had ventured out that morning with my friends, the Johnsons (ELCA Global Mission Regional Representatives to the Middle East), to visit and explore the mosques of Islamic Cairo (another story for another time). After a long visit with Sheik Mohammed at the Al-Azhar mosque I assumed that my interfaith dialogues were done for the day and turned my attention to wandering around the Khan El—Khalili market while Peter & Michele headed back to work. Enough of an adventure all by itself—a blond woman tends to stand out in Cairo—I had forgotten that staying at the Khan by myself also meant braving the metro by myself.

Now, the metro system of Cairo is excellent and inexpensive (less than $0.20 USD), but getting onto the trains at the busy downtown stations is something akin to running opposite a herd of stampeding buffalo.

I hoped that taking the women’s car would be easier to maneuver and so upon entered the platform I looked for the universal triangular-shaped woman figure, positioned myself under it, and readied myself to fight the exiting throng. So determined was I to catch the train that I almost missed the questioning voice from behind—the fact that it was in Arabic might have had something to do with it too. But when I turned to look, I found, behind me, a young Muslim woman veiled in black, motioning toward the empty seat beside her.

I hesitated just a bit. I wasn’t quite sure about sitting down to wait for the metro. It meant giving up my prime throng-fighting spot, and it’s not like the young woman and I could communicate; my Arabic was limited to 6 words and only useful for directing cab drivers back to the Johnson’s house. But how could I refuse her welcoming invitation? And so I found myself sitting down next to her, smiling as I said ‘Shukran’ (thank you). And although her face was veiled, I knew by her eyes she was smiling back.

For a few minutes we sat in friendly silence, exchanging smiles and nods until the rumbling began. Bracing ourselves, we prepared for the ambush. But then, at the height of anticipation, my new friend was called away by another woman to the other car entrance! I was alone as the doors opened, and before I knew it, I was five and then ten feet away from the doors. It was hopeless; I was never going to make the train! I was about ready to give up when, suddenly, a gloved hand gripped mine and a sheltering arm guided me through the now-closing doors. I smiled and laughed, only to hear another voice laughing quietly with mine, and as I turned to thank my kindly shepherd, I once again found myself face-to-face with the same young woman.

I hadn’t expected her to come back. There was no reason she should have come back. But there she was, her gloved hand still gripping mine. And though we could exchange no words, the conversation went deeper than language or culture and taught me more about interfaith dialogue than my hours spent in the mosque discussing theology. Because despite the fact that my blond hair shone out amidst the sea of veils those women accepted me, welcomed me, even came back for me.

One of my seminary professors always tells us, “If you’re not willing to accept that you might be changed through interfaith dialogue, then you can’t call it dialogue”. Until that moment, I had never let my guard down enough to get it. Until that moment I had never been changed. Until that moment…

No comments: