In April 2000 I landed in an interfaith minefield, but I didn’t know it at the time.
I was in Cairo, Egypt on the first lap of the fourth Middle East interfaith pilgrimage that I had helped to organize. Rabbi Marcia Prager and her husband, Cantor Jack Kessler, were our spiritual leaders. In what appeared to be a miraculous and auspicious turn of events, our group of 36 was offered a rare opportunity to meet with the head Imam of Cairo and with Egyptian government dignitaries in Al-Azhar, one of the most important mosques and Muslim learning centers in the world.
They held a press conference in the mosque to welcome us, and we were invited to introduce our peace mission publicly. After we spoke we unfurled and proudly displayed a 13-foot silk banner bearing messages for peace and freedom in more than 25 languages. We explained that these messages had been inscribed by people from all over the world. We emphasized to our Muslim hosts the importance of working closely with all the children of Abraham and, in turn, we were told by our hosts that they were in perfect alignment with our mission. Shutters clicked. Lights flashed. Cameras rolled. And we were on an “interfaith high.”
After the press conference, Mustapha, an eager and intelligent young reporter from a leading Egyptian newspaper, requested a private interview that evening. We accepted. He arrived at our hotel at 8:00 pm to interview us: Rabbi Marcia, Joseph (our Muslim tour leader), and me.
We were all impressed by Mustapha’s intelligence, and by his thoughtful questions about the nature of peace. How, he wanted to know, did we think peace could one day be achieved in the Middle East, which was home to one of the most intractable conflicts in the world?
“The answer lies in us,” Rabbi Marcia told him, her hand touching her heart. “We will have to create the peace ourselves.”
When he left us we were convinced that he, too, was a seeker of peace. It buoyed our spirits to meet a journalist sympathetic to our cause at the very beginning of our journey. We knew it was vital not only to convince people we might encounter about the benefits of interfaith dialogue and the importance of sharing our faith stories, but we also wanted to identify people in the media who would publicize our work and let others know that pursuers of peace are everywhere and willing to travel to spread the word.
A few months later, I was given a translation of the article written by that young, “sympathetic” journalist. In a front-page story strewn with lies and half-truths, our peace pilgrimage was vilified. The writer denounced the Imam for receiving us at the mosque, calling him naïve and susceptible to our “so-called peace mission.” The writer also accused me personally of making films to harm Arab women and children.
We had been deceived.
You may be wondering as I did at the time: Why do I want to work in these minefields? Why should I continuously expose myself to relentless lies and accusations?
Call me foolhardy. A dreamer. Naïve. I will not argue with you. I am all of those things and more. I come from a long line of dreamers. Perhaps that is why I am willing to enter the minefields of the interfaith world even though I have been forewarned and occasionally burned by the explosions.
But I must be honest. My existential dilemma goes even deeper than issues related solely to interfaith engagement. I struggle with the same nagging questions about the nature of humankind that have preoccupied men and women for millennia:
Are we doomed to eternal warfare, or is there a common ground of humanity that unites us regardless of our dearly held beliefs?
Is there an actual place—a unified field—where we can all intersect peacefully?
Can we expand our consciousness and our capacity to accept one another?
Can we create bonds of trust and friendship that will not jeopardize or compromise our own beliefs while we simultaneously show honor and respect to those who are on a different path?
And adding my own 21st century personal question to the list:
Are we finally ready to achieve world peace through our own efforts and can interfaith dialogue actually hasten that process?
These thorny questions have insinuated themselves into my life, into the very marrow of my bones. To find answers for myself, I embarked on a journey of more than two decades, following the trail—and in some instances actually creating a trail— for interfaith engagement. I am living—not dying—to know if it is possible for us to get along with one another. No, not just get along. Get ahead. Ahead of our fears. Ahead of our blindness and beyond our differences or, as the Poet of Love Jallaladin Rumi says so eloquently, to meet in a field beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing. The unified field.
I have come to believe that the most important and urgent work being done on the planet today is the work of interfaith engagement. Yet regardless of how crucial our mission may be, people always ask us the same question: What propels you to enter these minefields?
I believe I am responding for myself and for all my interfaith colleagues around the world when I say: We enter this territory because we must. We are compelled by visions of interfaith harmony no less mesmerizing than the ones that captivated the imaginations of our explorer ancestors: visions of a new world, of unlimited potential, of great opportunity and spiritual wealth.
We know with certainty that our interfaith world is curved, not flat. So do we also know that our faith is not linear. Our faith is particle and wave, as are we.
As voyagers, guided by our heavenly stars and constellations, we believe that just beyond the horizon is a fertile and welcoming world where people of many faiths can live in mutual respect and compassion, a land of unity within diversity, and diversity within unity. It is a world so rich in potential for inner and outer peace, that we are willing to risk all. We are willing to abandon the comfort of our familiar individual religious communities and well-worn scriptures, and to enter the unknown territory of “the other.”
We are curious, adventurous, and our hearts are open. We are fascinated by the individual and personal spiritual paths of our sisters and brothers. We are also devoted to our own path, and happy to be pursuing it. And we do not feel a need to have everyone believe or worship as we do.
We enjoy comparing rituals and beliefs. We marvel at our similarities and we take note of our differences. We call out to the Creator and the Universe in our distinct voice, but we also hear the sincerity in the voices and melodies that are not our own.
We tell stories about ourselves and our experiences. Our stories merge, converge, and diverge. We marvel at the variations of themes. We play our individual instruments and we submit ourselves to the Grand Orchestra.
We look like everybody else and have no distinguishing body marks. We come in all skin colors, ages and genders, all sizes and shapes. You will recognize us because we are border crossers—not across national and political lines, but across spiritual and religious boundaries. We feel at home both in our own community, and in other people’s communities. We move freely and easily between multiple worlds but we do not require passports or inked stamps to know when we left and when we returned. We may even inhabit those parallel worlds simultaneously.
We are border crossers because even as we recognize the philosophical and religious borders that separate us, we do not allow them to keep us from honoring our fellow travelers. And as we interfaith explorers discover one another, and as our networks of interfaith grow and expand across the globe like a giant golden web, we know that we have not undertaken this bold adventure in vain.
At the end of the interview Mustapha, the Egyptian journalist, tried to prepare us for what might happen, but we were not savvy enough at the time to understand his parting words, as you will see in Chapter 12, entitled “Be Careful What You Wish For.”
Our experience in Egypt was a minefield, one of many. But the miracles we can individually and collectively create through interfaith work are also many.
Won’t you join us?