Recently, I went to something called an Interfaith Friendship Dinner in the Adams Room at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.
There were about 30 people there, mostly Episcopalians, with a generous number of Muslims, Baptists and Presbyterians mixed in. (The Jewish delegation had to cancel at the last minute due to illness.)
Why interfaith friendship, and why at a Baptist church?
I stood at the podium and explained it like this:
There is a story in the Christian tradition about a time when an expert in the law of Moses asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life.
Jesus said, “You’re the expert. What do you think?”
The lawyer said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Good answer!” Jesus said. “Do that and you will live.”
But the lawyer asked (and I’m sure you’ve heard this part before), “Who is my neighbor?”
And Jesus told a story in which the example of “neighbor” was a Samaritan: someone who shared a common religious ancestry with the Jews, but who was of another faith.
And that’s us, isn’t it? Jews, Christians and Muslims can all trace their religious ancestry back to Abraham.
Although our paths have diverged since then and we claim different faiths, I think Jesus would say that we are still “neighbors” and still bound by the obligation to love each other.
But we can’t love what we don’t know and that’s why we’re having dinner tonight: to get to know each other so that we can come to love each other.
Several others stepped up to the podium after that, including Bill Sachs from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, who has been doing interfaith work for years.
“Those of us who invited you here tonight don’t have any master plan,” he said, “no grand design. Our goal is interfaith friendship.”
Wallace Adams-Riley from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church echoed those sentiments, as did Ammar Amonette from the Virginia Islamic Center and Alex Evans from Second Presbyterian Church.
But Imad Damaj, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a tireless advocate for interfaith understanding, said, “We do have a master plan. We want to see Richmond united. And one of the things that threaten to divide it is religion.”
That’s true, isn’t it?
The same kinds of tensions that once existed between Christians and Jews in this country now exist between Christians and Muslims. And some of the e-mails that are forwarded to me by well-meaning church members don’t help.
But what we did last night helps.
Sitting around the tables, breaking bread together, talking about our common struggles, bursting out laughing – these things help us get to know each other.
And as we do, the possibility emerges that one day, if we keep it up, we might learn to love each other, just as Christ commanded.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.