Last weekend I was invited to an "Interfaith Dialogue Dinner" hosted by the local branch of a Sufi Muslim movement. I didn't really know much about it going in, but a friend who's a state representative invited me, and you can't really say no to that sort of thing. Plus, the Attorney and the Librarian were also invited, so we figured if we got locked in a hotel ballroom for a couple of uncomfortable hours, at least we'd have each other with whom to giggle.
The event turned out to be very nice. It was an Iftar
dinner, which breaks the fast each night during Ramadan. There were all kinds of people there, speeches from prominant Austinites, including the mayor and the police chief, and we learned about the Gulen movement, which seeks to promote peaceful dialogue between Muslims and others. The idea was that by sharing dinner with people of other religious faiths, we can all learn to get along a little better.
The Attorney and the Librarian's account of the dinner makes it clear that their table did just that. They had Muslims and Episcopalians and Catholics and Baptists, all talking about their faiths, answering one another's questions, and generally having a good time.
And where was Texas in Africa during all this, you might wonder? Oh, I was seated between the Mormons and the Scientologists, natch. And they weren't just regular Mormons and Scientologists; they're professionals, one working at a center for LDS college students and the other for, well, the Scientologists.
This is the story of my life.
We did, to be fair, have a couple of Muslims at our table, but one of them, bless his heart, was two weeks off the flight from Turkey and still working on his English and the other appeared to be entirely fascinated with the crazytown baseball that was going on with everyone else. There were a couple of women who never identified themselves in religious terms, but I wouldn't be the least bit suprised if they're Unitarians. It would figure.
Here's the problem at an interfaith dialogue when the progressive Baptist represents the most "mainstream" faith in your city and state: there are very few appropriate topics of conversation. It's not like you can come right out and say, "So, let's talk about your different (but equally nutty
!) views about outer space
." Or ask the Scientologist in the next seat over who's been working in Hollywood for the last decade if she taught Katie Holmes to be a Scientologist. It's just not polite. Especially at an Iftar dinner at which you are a guest.
Luckily, most people at the table had the social skills necessary to recognize that the interfaith dialogue of the types the other 19 tables in the room were enjoying probably wasn't going to work at our table. Instead, we talked about travel (the Mormons had been to Turkey!), the weather (hot and miserable, as per usual), raising children, and life on campus (several of us are or are married to PhD candidates).
Also, I learned that dates (the food) are really tasty. And that made for a lovely Iftar evening.