Laurie Goodstein writes for the NYT.
NASHVILLE — It sounds like the start of a joke: a rabbi, a minister and a Muslim sheik walk into a restaurant.
The three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them.
But there they were, Rabbi Ted Falcon, the Rev. Don Mackenzie and Sheik Jamal Rahman, walking into an Indian restaurant, and afterward a Presbyterian church. The sanctuary was full of 250 people who came to hear them talk about how they had wrestled with their religious differences and emerged as friends.
They call themselves the “interfaith amigos.” And while they do sometimes seem more like a stand-up comedy team than a trio of clergymen, they know they have a serious burden in making a case for interfaith understanding in a country reeling after a Muslim Army officer at Fort Hood, Tex., was charged with opening fire on his fellow soldiers, killing 13.
“It arouses once again fear, distrust and doubt,” Sheik Rahman said, “and I know that when that happens, even the best of people cannot think clearly.”
The three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them. They put everything on the table: the verses they found offensive in one another’s holy books, anti-Semitism, violence in the name of religion, claims by each faith to have the exclusive hold on truth, and, of course, Israel.
“One of the problems in the past with interfaith dialogue is we’ve been too unwilling to upset each other,” Rabbi Falcon told the crowd at the Second Presbyterian Church here. “We try to honor the truth. This is the truth for you, and this is the truth for me. It may not be reconcilable, but it is important to refuse to make the other the enemy.”
Asked what is the hardest issue they have faced, the minister and the sheik simultaneously said, “Israel.”
“Yeah,” the rabbi said, “ ’cause these guys still don’t understand.”
Across the country, interfaith initiatives are multiplying. Jews and Christians have held dialogues for years, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many local interfaith groups decided it was urgent to include Muslims. Many Muslims were eager, too, concerned that their faith not be defined by terrorism. There are now interfaith Thanksgivings, interfaith college clubs, interfaith women’s groups and interfaith teams building affordable housing. On Nov. 14 and 15, 100 synagogues and mosques in North America and Europe paired up for dialogues and joint social service projects.
What distinguishes the “amigos,” who live in Seattle but make presentations around the country, is a unique approach to what they call “the spirituality of interfaith relations.” At the church in Nashville, the three clergymen, dressed in dark blazers, stood up one by one and declared what they most valued as the core teachings of their tradition The minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.”
The room then grew quiet as each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”
“It is a verse taken out of context,” Sheik Rahman said, pointing out that the previous verse says that God has no love for aggressors. “But we have to acknowledge that ‘kill the unbelievers’ is an awkward verse,’ ” the sheik said as the crowd laughed. “Some verses are literal, some are metaphorical, but the Koran doesn’t say which is which.”
Clearly, all three clergymen are in the liberal wing of their respective faiths. Mr. Mackenzie, 65, is a minister in the United Church of Christ, and recently retired from leading a large congregation, the University Congregational U.C.C., in Seattle. As a young man, he taught in Lebanon.
Rabbi Falcon, 67, is a Reform rabbi with a doctorate in clinical psychology who founded synagogues in Los Angeles and Seattle that meld meditation with Jewish tradition.
Sheik Rahman, 59, is a Sufi, a path of Islam focused more on spiritual wisdom than strict ritual. He is the son of a diplomat from Bangladesh, which helps explain his courtly ease. He co-founded an unusual mixed-faith congregation in Seattle, the Interfaith Community Church.
The minister and the rabbi met in a Christian-Jewish dialogue group, and the rabbi and the sheik met later when they were both on the board of a fledgling university that never got off the ground. After Sept. 11, Rabbi Falcon reached out to Sheik Rahman. They conducted several interfaith workshops, and for the first anniversary of the attacks, Rabbi Falcon invited Mr. Mackenzie to get involved, and the events were held at Mr. Mackenzie’s church. When they were over, the three said to one another, why stop now?
They began to meet weekly for spiritual direction, combining mutual support with theological reflection. Their families became acquainted over meals. They started an AM radio show, and they traveled together to Israel and the occupied territories. Recently, they wrote a book, “Getting to the Heart of Interfaith,” (Skylight Paths, 2009).
At one point, the rabbi read a line the sheik had written about the security wall in Israel and announced, “If that line is in the book, I’m not in the book.” After vigorous discussion, Sheik Rahman rewrote the line in a way that both men felt was respectful of their principles.
In the question-and-answer period at the church here, one woman challenged, “It would behoove you to start speaking in mosques.” (They already have some mosque events planned.) Others asked for practical steps to build bridges.
Afterward, Mark Wingate, a computer programmer and a Methodist, said: “Talking about the untruths of each tradition is very courageous. It gets it out of the platitude category and into dialogue.”
Mr. Wingate’s wife, Sally, added: “They had to work really hard to get to that point. Most of us are not willing to work that hard.”