My Turn: A greeting, a meal and a new connection
I’m all about a friendly welcome. When our family arrived in Concord in 2000, my first impression was that we’d landed in a very friendly community. The proof came the day I tossed half a ton of trash from our move into the dumpster at the transfer station, only to discover that one of the boxes I’d thrown out was still full of photographs and picture frames. I yelled to the operator, who immediately stopped the compactor and then jumped into the dumpster to retrieve the box. He handed it back to me with a smile, and when I looked inside, the only damage was one cracked frame.
“This is one great town,” I thought.
The first sight of the steeples that dot our cityscape was pretty inspiring, too. My youngest daughter still claims that she looks for them every time we return from a trip, to her, they say “welcome home.” And well they should. But that’s easy for me to say. We may be transplanted flatlanders, but we’re white, middle-income and you have to listen hard to catch even a twinge of Philadelphia accent. What’s more, we’re Christian, which assures that we blend in pretty well with the surrounding people- and steeple-scapes. But every now and then, as a Christian, I wonder how welcome our recent refugees actually feel here, especially those who are not.
I was in a meeting recently with several community leaders. We had come together in the wake of the two fairly recent hate crimes to discuss ways in which the Concord community might continue to reach out to our newest neighbors from Bhutan, Somalia, Cameroon and so many other countries of origin. We applauded the good work of the “Love Your Neighbor Rallies” and the hard work of the police department and the New American Africans events but wanted to do more. The conversation turned to the growing hostility in the United States toward Muslims, a hostility bred in response to the fanatical acts of Islamic extremists. After being utterly silent, a Muslim man announced that the most important thing we could do to make our new Muslim neighbors feel welcome would be to learn how to extend the universally-recognized greeting: as-salamu alaykum. Loosely translated: Blessings be upon you and your household.
You could have heard a pin drop. Such a simple idea: learning to say hello in one another’s religious languages. Shalom. Namaste. Peace be with you.
A week later, I was at a gathering unlike any I had ever attended in Concord. Four Christians, two Muslims and two Hindu neighbors got together in a friend’s Concord home. We shared a meal of vegetable macaroni and cheese. We told the stories of how we came to Concord. We talked about how we could help generate greater mutual appreciation among people of different faiths in New Hampshire. Not one of us felt threatened by the others’ presence or faith. Quite the contrary. Sharing the tenets of our own faiths over a meal only deepened our respect for one another. We ended the evening by offering each other traditional religious blessings. In our own languages. As a Christian, I will testify that the Holy Spirit was very much in our midst.
A theology professor once urged those of us heading into the Christian ministry to always remember that orthopraxis (right practice) is always more important in real life than orthodoxy (right teaching). And the world religions agree, the foremost practice is hospitality.
I think of his words now every time I look at the steepled skyline of Concord, because nestled between our steeples are other sacred places of meeting. I may not be able to see Temple Beth Jacob from the highway, but I know that anytime I happen to walk in I will be greeted with amazing warmth. I may not be see the place on the East Side of Concord where many of our Muslim neighbors worship once a week, but I know that if I should happen to show up, I will be welcomed like a brother.
Who knows? In this age of fear-mongering and religious extremism, the most effective antidote to religious animosity may still be the simplest, and the most ancient. We could choose to express our faiths by inviting a few neighbors from another tradition for a meal in what may be the most sacred, and numerous, meeting places of all: our own homes.
(Jed Rardin has been pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Concord for 11 years. He serves on the Mayor’s Task Force Against Racism and Intolerance. He lives with his wife and two daughters on Concord’s East Side, and is a very amateur jazz musician.)