Noted Civil Rights activist Ralph Abernathy once said, “We hate each other because we fear each other; we fear each other because we don’t know each other; we don’t know each other because we won’t sit down at the table together.”
In the spirit of Abernathy’s wise words, the Stanislaus County Interfaith Council hosted its Second Annual Interfaith Prayer Supper on Tuesday, bringing to “the table” community members of different faiths to discover what unique practices – and common experiences – they have when it comes to prayer.
Attendees of all religions and beliefs, from Judaism to Islam, gathered under one roof at the Modesto-Hughson Sikh Temple where they were not only treated to a traditional Indian meal, but also had the opportunity to partake in a facilitated dinner discussion on the topic of “How Prayer Unites Us.”
“Food is secondary,” SCIC Board President Michael Schieffelbeing. “Fellowship and understanding is the main course.”
The supper served as the non-profit’s latest effort to build bridges between seemingly-competitive faith groups – an endeavor that first began with the council’s long-running Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration each fall.
Modesto residents Nancy Silva and Norman VanSpronsen attended the Interfaith Prayer Supper for the second consecutive year Tuesday evening, but practice interfaith acceptance daily in their married life. VanSpronsen, who recently converted from Atheism to Judaism, said Silva, an Episcopalian, was thrilled by his sudden change in outlook.
“It may be a different religion, but it’s the same way of thinking,” Silva said.
That was the message on Tuesday night: No matter what the religion, each has its own traditions, beliefs and rituals that in most ways relate to those of others. During dinner, Silva, VanSpronsen and others at their table talked about their favorite holidays and the cultural dishes they enjoy at those events, and shared different prayers, meditation methods and spiritual practices that have been effective in their lives.
Also at Silva and VanSpronsen’s dinner table was Zahieh Jamal, of Islamic faith, who educated others about common Muslim practices like Ramadan. She and VanSpronsen found that their respective religions both practice holidays that involve fasting, and others realized that they share similar rituals, foods and forms of worship with multiple faiths.
“Why can’t we all live in peace? We are all human beings and come from the same place. God loves us all,” Jamal told the table. “I respect all religions.”
Guest speakers Rabbi Shalom Bochner (Congregation Beth Shalom) and Imam Ahmad Kayello echoed that sentiment in a discussion that emphasized the importance of bringing different communities of faith together. As Syrian refugees of Islamic faith arrive in the area, Bochner and Kayello shared the different ways that the local Jewish community has helped the newcomers settle in.
Whether it be through events like the Interfaith Prayer Supper or by way of smaller, more intimate gatherings, Bochner said that the commonalities of the Jewish and Islamic beliefs have helped the two communities grow closer.
“They have gone through so much, so we thought, ‘How can we help?” Bochner said. “We help by getting to know each other, and by modeling in our communities the respect we have for one another.”