Let me start with gratitude. Thank you for this opportunity to take part in this interfaith iftar. Thank you for this chance to come together across faith traditions, across beliefs that share commonality as well as contradiction. Thank you for the honor to be one voice among the many voices within my faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism.
I feel especially thankful to be here with all that is going on in the world, the relentless march of violence; hostilities that cannot be traced to their origins and threaten no foreseeable end; senseless deaths that bring great sorrow and no consolation. Thank you, that we ~ and others around the globe now and at other times ~ may gather together as an act of peace.
I’d like to start with a quiz – well, really, it’s a single question — gathered as we are on the occasion of an iftar, the breaking of the daily fast from sunrise to sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. I ask this question because a friend of mine just attended the iftar hosted earlier this week at the White House. This got me wondering about the history of the White House hosting iftars. I wonder if anyone here can guess the year – or even the decade –when the first iftar took place at the White House?
The year was 1805. The president was Thomas Jefferson. It took place at sundown on December 9, when Tunisia’s Muslim envoy to the United States visited the country during Ramadan. 1805!
Human memory can be short-sighted. Some of us – me, included, until not that long ago — look to the current presence of Islam in the United States and think this is it. Yet there is a long history of Islam in the Americas. Though there is some indication of Muslim presence during the centuries of exploration (and imperialism), the first significant wave of Muslims in America was when African slaves were forcibly brought to this soil. It is believed that 10-15% of those people were Muslim, some of whom continued to practice their faith in secret ~ including an African American community on one of the islands off the coast of Georgia maintaining a contiguous prayer community until the early 20th century.
It is so important that all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, learn this history and share it, for sometimes, this nation acts like Islam is a stranger in a strange land, alien and unwelcome. It is we – this group of people from across differing belief systems, different faith communities, differing religious perspectives – who must call this nation – whether we be citizens or residents or guests – to live into its enshrined values of diversity and inclusion.
So if it was Thomas Jefferson over 200 years ago who held the first iftar at the White House, do you know which U.S. president said, when speaking before a gathered Jewish community, affirming America’s commitment to interfaith cooperation by insisting, “the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”? I love the lilt of the language, so I thought for sure it was Jack Kennedy. Sounds like him, doesn’t it?
It was George Washington, speaking in 1790 in Rhode Island, articulating, restating, and reinforcing this nation’s commitment to pluralism in a religious context.
As we here do so tonight. By gathering at this interfaith iftar, risking connection with each other across unfamiliar ritual, we offer ourselves, our lives, and our service in search of an honorable pluralism of respect and celebration. As people of faith and conscience, we can always look within ourselves to know ourselves better and to better ourselves.
Yet, it is something altogether braver to look outside, to those from other perspectives, to strengthen the best in our own traditions. And to encounter those growing edges modern life brings to us that our ancestors either did not face or did not face in a way of lasting relevance.
One of my interfaith heroes, Eboo Patel, a Muslim man who co-founded with a Jewish friend the Interfaith Youth Core (in Chicago and now nationwide), describes interfaith cooperation among people of contrasting political opinions. He says,
I think interfaith work is about building positive relationships between people whose diverse religious convictions shape their dramatically different politics. I believe that is both an end in itself, and a means to another useful end—expanding civic space, strengthening social cohesion and increasing social capital. How else do you have a thriving diverse democracy unless people who have deep disagreements on some issues are able to work together on other issues?
Expanding shared civic space and strengthening social cohesion is not just some theoretical idea or fodder for an elegant speech. It is the very life of life, it is the very honor of the passage of death, it is compassion and hope in the times inbetween. I have spent this summer as a hospital chaplain here in Springfield, providing comfort and spiritual healing to patients who are gravely ill. These patients come from a wide diversity of faith traditions: Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Baptist, Hindu, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Eastern Orthodox, Buddhist, and none of the above.
Tonight, I am accompanied by some of my chaplain colleagues, honored by the invitation to join you, as we are honored and blessed to serve the wider community. As multi-faith chaplains serving all hospital patients, we know that we are better chaplains if we have an authentic appreciation for each patient’s faith tradition. We expand our appreciation through interfaith engagement of many forms – learning, relationships, community events like this. Thus we ensure that when there is need in our country, in our communities, in our families, in our schools or hospitals, we are able to respect, honor and celebrate.
Let us end in a prayer (adapted), written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Kathleen McTigue:
We gather today as a diverse body of people
from many faiths and traditions.
We do not speak the same language of worship.
We follow different teachings, made known to us
by sacred voices and scriptures through the ages.
We do not utter the same prayers, nor do we even
use the same words if any word at all, to speak the name of God.
Nevertheless, we gather [in worship].
In our gathering we honour and celebrate our diversity.
We do no seek a unity that would deny our differences.
We seek rather a deeper union,
a union woven through choice and intent,
Through time and attention,
Through respect and compassion,
Until we recognize that we have become a whole cloth,
A cloth made rich and textured and vibrant through our differences.
Each of us can hear, in the beating of our own hearts,
The ancient rhythm of the loom at work,
We are woven together.
We are bound to one another.
We belong and with each other.
Let us [worship] break bread together.