October 18, 2008
Breaking bread and barriers
by: BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer
Local Christians, Jews and Muslims gather to dine.
What do a Jewish couple, a Christian couple and a Muslim couple — all strangers — talk about when they meet for dinner in a private home?
Anything and everything, it turns out.
Common Tables is a program developed last spring to foster understanding, friendship and communication between people of the three Abrahamic faiths.
Fourteen groups, or "tables," have been meeting in Tulsa since June. Most of them consist of three couples, each of a different faith. One group is four women. Another includes a gay Jewish couple.
Vicky Langston, a member of Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, where the program was born, said its purpose is to give people of different faiths an opportunity to talk together about their faiths.
Sharing meals in the hospitality of homes allows people to "see each other not just as symbols of a religion but as real people who are neighbors and fellow citizens of the world," she said.
Not all the talk is about religion.
"We don't tell them what to talk about," Langston said. "We just want them to get together. But questions about their faith naturally come up, especially during Ramadan, or the High Holy Days.
"Just to be in someone else's home, of another faith and another culture, allows you to connect with people on a different level," she said.
"It's been wonderful, I get wonderful feedback."
Allison Moore, who with her husband, Sean, hosted an Open Table on Saturday night, said the conversation was lively, ranging from business, world politics and the financial bailout to matters of faith.
"We're in discovery mode," Moore said. "We came in curious, and we're able to ask questions. It's been very enlightening."
Also in that group were Bob and Lynn Russell, who are involved in a Christian prison ministry and hosted the group in August.
"It was wonderful, just like being at one of your best friend's homes," Lynn Russell said. "We're all very different, but we're all very similar.
"What I'd like everyone to realize is that we're all the same people. Sometimes we let our religion put barriers between us. How we believe should not be a barrier between us.
"This has been one of the most incredible and the most rewarding experiences I've had in a long time."
Bob Russell said he was getting a better understanding of Muslims.
"When you to sit down and break bread, you learn a lot," said Bob Russell. "They're concerned about the same things we are, getting the kids raised, how things are going in this country."
Itai Lavi, Tulsa's Israeli emissary, took advantage of the dinner at his house to serve food that is part of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration, and to explain some of the New Year blessings.
"We assume we know a lot about other people's religion and culture, but we don't," Lavi said.
"It's a great experience to see the daily culture and life of others."
Other benefits of the program, Lavi said, were to experience "warm and open hearts, and to learn how close we really are, and how similar to each other we really are."
Omer Akdeniz, a Muslim from Turkey, and his wife, Sharon Adkeniz, served their guests an eggplant dish common in Turkey, tabouli and Turkish tea.
"It was a very lovely experience," Akdeniz said. "Everybody was comfortable and relaxed."
The program originated with the Interfaith Concerns Work Area at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church. The Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice signed on as sponsor.
The 72 participants in Open Tables met in June at the Al-Salam Mosque in Tulsa, where they were divided into groups of six. Most of them did not know the members of their group.
They agreed to meet for meals three times during the next six months in each of their homes, to respect the dietary requirements of their guests and to avoid proselytizing.
Another round of meetings will begin in January. There is a waiting list for participation.
Langston said participants are required to sign up through their own faith community, and not as individuals.
After the Tulsa program was launched, Langston said, she learned of a similar program in Denver called Common Tables.
A dinner program created at Rice University in Houston two years ago is expecting to draw thousands of people in a directed discussion about the role of faith in their lives.
The Amazing Faiths Dinner Dialogues will be held Nov. 13 in 10 cities, including Oklahoma City.
The Abrahamic religions
Jews, Christians and Muslims all take their inspiration from Abraham, a Semitic nomad who, according to the biblical narrative, lived several thousand years ago in the Middle East.
Abraham was born in Ur, then a major city in southern Iraq, and migrated toward Palestine at God’s direction.
The Israelite King David and Jesus of Nazareth are his direct descendants.
He is revered as a man of faith who gained righteousness by believing in God.
The name Abraham means “father of many.”
*This story really caught my eye ~ amazing irony and significance on so many levels when you think about our human-relatedness!
Little did I know that I actually hailed from a "birth" family filled with just such diversity. I don't have to sit down at a table with strangers to experience such a unique and wonderful warmth ~ I am blessed to sit down with my own flesh & blood!
My maternal heritage is mostly English & Scottish, but for almost 20 yrs now I have been blessed to spend many special days with my nMom's sister and her family. She has two kids who I adore ~ I watched them grow up before my eyes, and I am so thankful for those years of laughter and fun we all had when they were children. They are both out of high-school now and finding their way in life. Both of my young cousins are of middle-eastern decent. My aunt is married to a wonderful man who came to America from Iraq as a young man to finish his education ~ long before most of us had even heard of such a country or the drama which now dominates our world. I've cherished many years of Christmas get-togethers when my uncle would share the simple little games he enjoyed growing up in Iraq, intertwined with our more "American" games of "Uno" and "charades".
Not only do I have this family-connection, but also my wonderful paternal heritage of being Jewish. My nGrandfather's family were Jewish immigrants to America, and even though he married my "Gentile" Grandmother (as she called herself lol), she used to tell me how warm and accepting they were to her as part of their family. I will always cherish those hours I shared sitting at their kitchen table, hearing these family stories. If I hadn't searched and found them when I was young, I would have missed out on this important part of my very history. I may have never known. Never known that I drove on the same city streets as my entire natural family growing up. That I shopped at the same stores and attended the same schools. It is sometimes mind-blowing to think about.
Thank you, God, for bringing us back together.
Thank you for revealing such a beautiful heritage, both naturally and spiritually.