Monday, September 6, 2004

New York Christians have raised money to rebuild a mosque in Afghanistan. It is a striking example of how religion can strengthen the human community.

Many Americans judge Muslim countries and the Muslim faith by the Taliban, by September 11 and al-Qaeda.

Many Iraqis judge the United States and Christianity by the desecration of a Muslim cemetery, by abuses at Abu Ghraib and incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay.

Both judgments are distorted and wholly unfair to great peoples and great faiths. Sad to say, they are encouraged not only by unfortunate video images but also by scurrilous misrepresentation. Our own faith must be weak if we have to demonstrate its validity by running down the deeply held beliefs of others.

Human nature is such that we are too often ready and even eager to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our ideals. The answer lies in a deeper honesty about our own shortcomings and a conscious effort to reach out to others who are different from us.

Last year a New York Episcopal parish set an example for us. It raised the money to rebuild a mosque in Kabul destroyed by US bombs. The idea stemmed from Rt Rev Mark Sisk who took office as New York's bishop a few weeks after September 11 and decided to make the improvement of Christian-Muslim relations a priority. He said, 'I believe it is our duty as Christian leaders, witnesses to the presence of the living Lord, to take initiatives that can bind up the wounds of the human community.' It had occurred to the bishop that it would be a wonderful thing if Christians in New York City, people who had learned so recently about the pain of an attack, could reach out to others who had also experienced bombs falling on their beloved city.

Bishop Sisk hopes that people in the United States and Afghanistan will see that religion can strengthen rather than impoverish the human community and that even though people of faith may have differences of doctrine they can still live in harmony. 'We are all brothers and sisters living in the presence of a loving, forgiving and merciful God,' he says. 'It is our joy to have the opportunity to reflect that love.'

We may not all have the inspiration or opportunity for such a dramatic gesture but we all can do things in our immediate surroundings to discover the other. Several years back, Indian friends of mine had the idea to make one day of the year a day to open their home to strangers in the community in order to get to know them better. They communicated that thought to friends around the world. The first tentative experiments have produced encouraging stories of people from dozens of nationalities who have shared hospitality and an exchange of life experiences, among them Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and people of no particular faith.

In the last couple of years that simple idea has blossomed and hundreds are now taking part in the first weekend of June in the International Day of Open Homes and Listening Hearts.

Will Jenkins, who has been coordinating the event in the United States with the theme 'Do you talk to strangers?' says that all can have a part: liberals and conservatives, young and old, immigrant and native: 'By connecting the rich resource of our many cultures, we can make America a place of hope, creativity, and opportunity for everyone. Hopefully, we will provide a model for a world torn apart by racial, religious and ethnic hatred and fear.'

While June is behind us, it is never too late for us to think of opening our homes and our hearts. We can also look ahead to the Open Homes/Listening Hearts Day in 2005 and, perhaps more importantly, begin to make the reaching out to others the normal practice of our daily lives.

With divisions fanned by the ongoing hostilities in Iraq and their coverage, building bridges to “the other” – whoever that other represents – will be needed more than ever. The organizers of Open Homes/Listening Hearts have started a website that provides ideas how to make the most out of the act, with a chance for families to post the results of what they have learned. (

Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan tells the story of the Prophet seeing a funeral procession passing through the streets of Medina and standing in respect of the dead person. A companion asked him, 'Oh, Prophet, that was the funeral of a Jew not a Muslim and yet you stood up in respect.' The Prophet answered, 'Was he not a human being?'

We can take that to heart whatever our faith.

First published in June 2004 on