Interfaith gathering in San Francisco

Christians, Muslims, Jews told spirituality, not religion, is key

U.S. troops attacked a mosque in Iraq, Muslim militants blew up a bus in Kashmir, and Israeli security forces ravaged a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

In other news, nearly 100 Christians, Muslims and Jews sat down together in San Francisco, shared a meal, and tried to figure out why religion seems to be the problem rather than the solution.

They gathered at a dozen round tables Sunday evening at the new Jewish Community Center in San Francisco and listened to three experts — a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew — tell them that the essence of all three religions is love.

Are there any questions?

No hands were raised. No one wanted to go first. Then the ice broke, and the questions came forth.

Is it true that Islamic law oppresses women?

As a rabbi, do you feel like you have to defend the actions of the Israeli government?

Why is it that the more religious people become, they more they seem to fight? Shouldn’t it be the opposite?

That last question went to the Rev. Charles Gibbs, an Episcopal priest and executive director of the United Religions Initiative.

“If there were an answer to that question,” Gibbs said, “the world would look very different.”

Gibbs said the problem seems to be that people of all three faiths limit themselves with a narrow interpretation of religious law, with their own exclusive version of the truth.

“That,” the priest said, “has led to incredible bloodshed.”

According to Gibbs, the solution is spirituality, not religion.

“It’s the spirit of God that animates life,” he said. “That’s where we find the common ground that can overcome hatred.”

It also helps to sit down and eat together.

Sunday’s roundtable discussion on “living your faith” was the third in a series of three interfaith gatherings co-sponsored by 14 Jewish, Muslim, Christian and interfaith organizations.

Dr. Hisham Abdallah, a clinical pharmacologist in Palo Alto and an Islamic scholar, reminded the audience that no one person — and especially militants such as Osama bin Laden — speaks for the 1.3 billion Muslims around the world.

“All the extreme-sounding ideas you hear are just that,” he said.

Rabbi Scott Slarsky, an educator at the Jewish Community Center, was asked if he agreed with the policies of the Israeli government.

Long pause.

“Next question,” he quipped, before going on to say what he really thought.

“Israel is the only place where the people in the repressive majority are Jews,” Slarsky said. “We’d better start treating people in Israel in line with the values of our own tradition. I can’t make any excuses for the human rights abuses against the Palestinian people.”

Before the meeting began, Souleiman Ghali, president of the Islamic Society of San Francisco, stood in the lobby next to longtime Jewish community leader Rita Semel, whose interfaith work in San Francisco goes back to 1963.

Ghali said it was difficult to get the average person who attends his Tenderloin mosque to come to an interfaith event — especially one held at the Jewish Community Center.

“It’s hard, given all that’s going on in Iraq and Gaza,” he said.

Semel, who moderated Sunday’s event, nodded sympathetically.

“Souleiman and I agree to disagree on many issues,” she said. “Everybody is concerned. Jews are concerned about the survival of the state of Israel. But we have to figure out a way to live together.”

The meeting Sunday night was by no means the first time Muslims and Jews have come together in San Francisco, but this one had an extraordinary moment.

Before dinner was served, there was a break so the two dozen Muslim participants could conduct their evening prayers in the expansive atrium of the newly opened Jewish center.

They removed their shoes, knelt and recited the Arabic prayers. They formed a straight line behind an adobe-colored monolith that dominates the light-filled atrium with seven inspirational sayings from Jewish writers across the centuries.

Three Muslim women knelt in prayer on the other side of the 30-foot-high wall — right next to a passage from the Book of Zechariah (4:6).

“Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit,” it reads.

Iftekhar Hai, director of interfaith relations for United Muslims of America, stood up, put his shoes on and walked back into the atrium.

Someone asked him how it felt to pray in the new Jewish center.

“God is everywhere,” he replied.

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The San Francisco Chronicle, USA
May 25, 2004
Don Lattin

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday May 30, 2004.
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