Fasting and Eating and Understanding

posted by Mike on October 13th, 2005

Today is Yom Kippur. It’s also Ramadan. Many are fasting today, and many who would not fast ordinarily are joining them. So if you see a bunch of people looking cranky and repentant, that’s what’s going on.

Yesterday was the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in Worcester. I’d heard of “prayer breakfasts,” but I’d never been to one, so I did a little research and found the Prayer Breakfast Network. Their website does not feature symbols of religion (Christian cross, Jewish star, Muslim crescent, Buddhist wheel) or breakfast (Northern bagel, Southern grits, Western omelette), just a bunch of American flags. Their spiritual heritage page is entirely about Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.

Maybe some towns could have a monocultural prayer breakfast like that, but not Worcester. The breakfast emcee was a rabbi, the opening prayer was by a Catholic bishop, the opening speech was by a city employee identified as a Unitarian, the keynote speaker was Bernard Lafayette (Baptist minister, among other things), and the closing prayer was by representatives from Hillel and the Islamic Society.

Then an Indian man who’d known Gandhi read a poem!

Stuff like that, and the City Council’s choosing religious tolerance over mosque wiretapping, makes me happy to be in Worcester.

Here’s another story that makes me happy to be in Worcester. It’s about some folks who decided to meet their new neighbors instead of fearing them. As told in Worcester’s Catholic Free Press:

October 7, 2005

St. Joan of Arc has a new neighbor

By Tanya Connor

WORCESTER–The new mosque on East Mountain St. has drawn responses from Catholic neighbors.

Father José A. Rodríguez, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish on Lincoln Street, said last week that he made arrangements to take some people to visit during the Muslims’ prayers.

Two weeks ago, for his monthly Bible study, he compared the Bible and the Quran, the Muslims’ holy book, giving sessions in English and Spanish.

The visit is a follow-up on these sessions, which were a response to comments about the new neighbors, Father Rodríguez said.

“There was a certain anxiety about having a mosque in their midst,” he said of people’s responses. “People unfortunately connect Islam and 9-11. It’s sad, because that’s the image that has been portrayed.”

The only way to change that image is to learn about Muslims, he said.

“It’s easy to fear and condemn things you don’t know about,” he said. “There’s a lack of knowledge about Islam.”

So he compared Islam with what Catholics are familiar with–their own religion. When people fear something, they withdraw, he said, so he wanted not only to teach, but also to make them comfortable enough to learn.

“You could see they wanted to understand more,” he said of the participants’ responses. But, he said, “to really understand and appreciate it you really need to have a good grasp of your own religion, your own Scriptures.” Bible study is not a strength of Catholics in general, and a number of Hispanics are turning to Islam, he said.

He expressed hope for a cordial relationship with Muslim neighbors and said they have been trying to ease tensions.

“We are neighbors of the mosque,” St. Joan of Arc parishioner Jeanne Duggan said after the Bible study. “I would have come anyway, but that was kind of an added incentive.”

Her husband, Joseph Duggan, said he was part of a group which got a tour of the Muslims’ facility.

“They were very pleasant to us,” he said. “They want to be good neighbors.”

“Our religion greatly recommends that we serve neighbors,” Imam Hafiz Hamid Mahmood told The Catholic Free Press. An imam is a leader, in this case a religious leader, and hafiz is his title, which means memorizer of the Quran, he said, adding that he has memorized the whole book. His title is followed by his first and last name.

“We have to be the best neighbors, co-workers, relatives, friends,” he said. “We must share everything in terms of happiness, grief, tragedies, with others.”

He said they are mainstream Muslims, and 99 percent of Muslims in the United States are as well. They denounce killing people in the name of religion, he said, but indicated that media portrayals of a few extremists have left people with misconceptions about the majority of Muslims.

“Christian organizations have greatly helped us to be understood by the community at large,” he said. “They let us come in and talk about ourselves,” and include Muslims in interfaith activities.

Generally they have had a very good reaction from their new neighbors and passersby, he said, adding that people have shown interest in their grand opening, which will probably be held in a couple months. Visitors are welcome to attend prayers there at 1 p.m. on Fridays and activities there from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Sundays, he said. He said the Muslims would also welcome invitations to visit churches and other houses of worship.

Groups of visitors to the mosque can call ahead so accomodations can be made for them, he said. Proper protocol is to shake hands and sit for worship only with people of the same sex. Women are asked to cover their heads and wear long sleeves and a long skirt or loose-fitting pants, he said.

Prayers were first held in the new mosque last Friday, Imam Mahmood said. For the past 30 years, the community worshipped in their mosque at 57 Laurel St., he said, but they were outgrowing the space. For about 100 years before that, Muslims in Worcester gathered in houses to worship, he said.

Three years ago they started building at 248 East Mountain Street, he said. The handicapped-accessible Worcester Islamic Center there holds a mosque, a social hall and Alhuda Academy, a Muslim elementary school whose name means guidance. Also part of the center is a separate fitness center being constructed.

The pre-school through grade 8 school of about 70 students, which opened a few weeks ago, is in its fifth year, having moved here this year from Northboro, according the administrator Hakima Elyounssi.

In his talk Father Rodríguez said Abraham is considered the Father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the main monotheistic religions of the world. Jews and Christians call God names such as Yahweh and Lord. Muslims call him Allah.

The Bible, meaning collection of books, contains 46 books in the Old Testament written down by different people from 900 to 200 B.C. and 27 in the New Testament composed between 50 and 100 A.D., he said.

The Quran, meaning “repeat this after me,” contains 114 chapters written by Mohammed in the early 600s as word for word revelations he said he received from God through an angel, Father Rodríguez said. That is why Muslims have as much reverence for the Arabic version of the Quran as Catholics have for the Eucharist, he said.

Christians build on the revelations of the Old Testament. Muslims consider the Quran, which contains some things from the Bible, the last revelation, he said. They do not accept Christian belief in the Trinity.

Imam Mahmood said the “Muslims of each time” followed the prophet of their time–Moses, later Jesus and, still later, Mohammed.

“When God sends a new prophet, you have to follow that prophet in order to be Muslims,” he said, adding that they give importance to Mohammed because he is “the prophet of our time,” and the last messenger.

The Quran permits attacking others, but not first, and says there is a proper place for war, Father Rodríguez said, adding that the Old Testament also has war scenes, but Jesus’ message in the New Testament promotes forgiveness. Christians say a war must be just, he said.

The Quran contains a lot about fighting, Imam Mahmood said, adding that there is no world pure of fighting, so regulations are needed. “Holy war” is not an Islamic term, he said, and jihad refers to defending oneself against evil, usually not by fighting. It can involve self defense and fighting personal temptations, he said.

Father Rodríguez said not everyone who believes in the Bible or the Quran believes it in the same way.

He suggested highlighting positive things from Islam, such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and closed with a prayer asking “Father Abraham” to help “us” find ways to heal division.

“I thought it was excellent,” Sister of Notre Dame Rose Mary Grant, of St. Mary Parish in Shrewsbury, said of Father Rodríiguez’ presentation. “We need to understand” other religions. Now she has a lot more questions; one doesn’t learn all about another religion in one session, she said.

Sister Claire Perez, a Sister of Notre Dame from St. Joan of Arc, said a religion is more than its holy book; Muslims wouldn’t understand Catholicism by reading the Bible without also attending Mass. She said she had passed the mosque, but had not thought much about it, then heard about the presentation at St. Joan of Arc and wanted to learn more.

Brian Ortiz, a St. Joan of Arc altar server and seventh-grader at St. Peter-Marian Junior High School, said he has been comparing the Bible and Torah and “knew there was a third element.” So he came to learn about the Quran.

This story from the Catholic Free Press may be reprinted if Tanya Connor and the Catholic Free Press are credited.

For some reason, “Stephen Colbert” and “High Holy Days” go together in my mind, as in this example. I remember that great “commercialization of Hannukah” piece he did, which went something like this:

Colbert: Hannukah, highest of the high holy days.

Rabbi: I have to tell you. This is not the highest of holy days.

Colbert: OK, it is. Let’s just move on from there.

Rabbi: Well, I have to contradict you.

Colbert: Name one holier day.

Rabbi: Yom Kippur.

Colbert: Well…name another!

Rabbi: Rosh Hashana.

Colbert: Now you’re just making things up.

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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On October 13, 2005 at 18:28 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Very nice. Here in Oxford, we are thinking about similar things as well, following the Friendship Walk for the Middle East.

    Here is an excerpt from the minutes of the last meeting of the Faith in Action group of city-centre churches in Oxford:

    For most of the meeting, we discussed what more we could do, in the centre of Oxford, on inter-faith matters. We welcomed Daryl Balia, the Director of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF), which is based in Oxford. IARF aims to build relationships between people of different faiths, not to amalgamate all faiths, or to compare scriptures in an academic fashion. It has activities in Asia and America, and has produced three 12-minute films on places of inter-faith tensions. The Oxford staff are keen to root themselves in local interfaith activities, and perhaps promote a place where people, especially young people, from different faiths could meet. But IARF could not impose such an initiative from above – rather, it could put resources at the disposal of a local initiative.

    It was commented that it was sad if inter-faith discussions have to happen in special places – not least because only liberals would be likely to go there. Rather, we need to engage with committed people of faith in public places – such as the Moslems who set up stall on Cornmarket.

    There was strong support for the idea of fostering relationships between ourselves and people of different faiths. It is part of becoming human. We noted a number of ways this was happening:
    • The Friendship Walk in June, when perhaps 300 people had walked from the synagogue to St Mary’s to the mosque. The initiative was noted in the national press. David had walked next to a Moslem Councillor from Headington – so he could ring him up to offer support in the aftermath of the London bombs. There is a meeting soon to plan further walks.
    • The Oxford round table’s (previous?) practice of sharing food, sharing music, and sharing what great life experiences, such as birth, mean.
    • The scheme of Richard Thomson from the Society of Friends for families of different faiths to meet for two meals – one in each direction.
    • The one-off gathering in the Park after the London bombings, which was particularly significant because it was not a gathering primarily of Christians.
    • Lectures given in Oxford by Moslems, of different schools of thought.

    We thought of other possibilities, such as
    • An interfaith hike
    • A joint meeting, like the one we had on homelessness
    • Suggesting to our churches that , in the next year, a third of our congregation participate in one or other of the opportunities to relate to people of other faiths.

    We agreed to return to the topic at our next meeting, and to have inter-faith matters as an agenda item at each meeting, so that we could inform each other of new initiatives.

  2. On October 14, 2005 at 09:35 Justin said:

    I am in Cairo at the moment where Ramadan is in full swing. Hopefully I will be able to publish more about this holy time soon.

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