Ten rabbis, ten imams, and ten evangelical ministers boarded planes to Abu Dhabi last May. Sounds more like an overwrought joke at a UN reception than an attempt at achieving world peace. But there we were: 30 American clergy from 10 pilot cities, overcoming fears and prejudice at the invitation of the United Arab Emirates, where the rubber of faith meets the road of possibility.
The goals were deceptively simple, though such illusions often mask the hard realities of the work of peace: to bring together those who often fail to hear, understand, or even know one another on the other side of the earth in a place fairly foreign to all in the hopes of producing something outside of the box when we were outside of our daily lives.
Sponsored by the foreign ministry of the UAE, this ongoing process emerged from the efforts of Dallas-area evangelical megachurch pastor Bob Roberts and eminent Islamic scholar Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah. For the pastor, it was his passionately authentic attempt to counter the pernicious Islamophobia stoked by most of his colleagues. For the sheikh, it was a vaunted desire to convey a moderate approach to Islam from within, combatting the extremism, ignorance, and intolerance that plague so many of his coreligionists. For the rabbis…well, let’s just say that if both groups can find accord with the Jews in light of our histories, achieving this utopian goal would be that much easier to attain.
The hope was to leverage relationships through inverting the common approach to interfaith relations. First we would start with our hands, working together on key projects in our communities. Then we would create a basis for the heart, forging relationships of mutual respect and recognition of our essential humanity out of our shared efforts. And then, perhaps, we could discuss matters of the head, affirming common insights and conceding distinct matters of theology in the purified spirit of learning from each other without ulterior motives or hidden agendas.
Each city triad committed to breaking bread in one another’s homes; bringing our congregations together toward shared work in our communities; re-creating our experience in Abu Dhabi with a widening circle of clergy; and standing by one another at times of crisis, attack, or in response to other acts of intolerance.
I gleaned much from this experience. But the biggest takeaway was the dispelling of stereotypes about evangelical Christians. While my interfaith efforts have encompassed enriching bonds with mainstream Protestants and Catholics, I have neglected opportunities for outreach to evangelicals, assuming the chasm on social and political issues rendered partnerships untenable.
Not only did I learn that evangelicals are anything but monolithic in their views and priorities, but even those articles of faith that seem to divide us leave ample room for reciprocity of respect and abiding friendship. With so many in the world exuding the toxicity of hate and the virus of religious violence, I am deeply appreciative for the immense hospitality and generosity of the UAE government; the gentle, incisive wisdom and vision of Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah; and the openness of heart of all of my fellow participants. May the spirit of our few days together inspire our efforts and deepen our commitment, radiating a love for peace that will transcend our current moment and unfinished world.
Rabbi Daniel A. Weiner has served as senior rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai for almost 17 years.