Opinion: A bridge across the great divide


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Published: 05-25-2024 7:00 AM

Rev. Dr. Stephanie Rutt is founding minister of the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst. She lives in Nashua.

In the poem “The Place Where We Are Right,” esteemed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai invites us deep into what can happen when certainty ends conversation and moral supremacy circumvents any thirst for understanding. Inevitably, the schism created by “us vs. them” leaves both sides of the great divide standing firm in the same place, the place where flowers will never grow in the spring.

There are many variables responsible for this widening schism breaking apart our nation. And, while it’s certainly imperative that all differences be heard, this is not my focus. Here, I wish to highlight what can actually build a bridge across the great divide and connects — when we are able to let go of being right.

Recently I sat with colleagues from the Nashua Interfaith Council to discuss stories from the book, “My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.” As “religious freedom” is a rallying cry on both sides of our national schism, this opportunity felt particularly timely. And the experience gave me a renewed sense of hope, and possibility. Disclaimer! The brief summary of three stories offered here may “dig up the world like a mole, a plow,” as Amichai writes. You’ve been warned.

In “If Muhammad Had Not Spoken,” Samir Selmanovic writes that when he became a Christian his secular Muslim parents were devastated and pulled out all the stops. They recruited one of Europe’s best psychiatrists and fifty relatives to “take their best shot at helping me get over my infatuation with God.”

Finally, as a last resort, they invited Imam Muhammad, a respected holy man in the community known for emanating peace and playfulness. They felt certain he would come to the rescue. Selmanovic writes that he braced for the usual arguments he felt sure were coming. Instead, after simply sitting together in silence, the Imam stood up quietly and walked over and lightly touched his shoulder saying, “I’m glad you are a believer,” and before leaving opened his arms to invite an embrace.

After he’d left, Selmanovic’s parents nicknamed him “Crazy Muhammad.” But Selmanovic writes, “The grace and truth I had first met at the cross were embodied in this man, who was willing to be taken for a fool in order to help make me whole.”

In “What I Found in the Chapel,” Zalman Schachter-Shalomi recalls leaving years of seminary study in various Orthodox Jewish congregations to study at Boston University. On his first day, he arrived early to leave time to pray before class. Unfortunately, the small chapel, intimate for meditation, had a big brass cross on the altar so he decided to use another room, the Daniel Marsh Memorabilia Room in the same building. There he found a corner and facing east, toward Jerusalem, began to pray.

One day, a middle-aged Black man came into the room and said, “I’ve seen you here several times. Wouldn’t you like to say your prayers in the small chapel? Why don’t you come by the chapel tomorrow morning and take a look?” The next morning Schachter-Shalomi stopped by and there he found two candles burning in brass candleholders, and no sign of the big brass cross. The large Bible was open to Psalm 139: “Whither shall I flee from Thy presence.” The friendly Black man was none other than the Rev. Howard Thurman, who was then dean of Marsh Chapel at the university.

In “Finding Faith on the Road: Where Deep Commitment and Genuine Openness Meet,” Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield describes his experience hailing a cab to his hotel. The car’s interior was covered with a “JESUS LOVES YOU” sticker and there was a crucifix mounted on the dashboard. Soon, they were in a lively conversation about Jesus. Finally, the Rabbi summed up that he could believe Jesus was a great teacher without believing he was God’s son and the only path to salvation. He said, “I can love Jesus in my way. And you can love Jesus in yours. There’s room for both of our understandings. I don’t believe that you have to be wrong for me to be right.”

Reflecting on his experience, Rabbi Hirschfield writes, “I wanted him to appreciate that I could love and learn from his tradition, and that we did not need to agree in order to share that love.”

Arriving at the hotel, the cab driver said, “Rabbi, you’d make a good pastor!” and Rabbi Hirschfield writes he felt honored, the highest form of praise. They hugged before each were on their way.

And so, when the Imam, Reverend and Rabbi, all children of Abraham, were given an opportunity to choose whether to hold fast to being right or to build a bridge based on mutual respect, one could say something akin to love created a space, tilled the soil, and made ready for flowers to grow in the spring.