One evening this past October St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church hosted an interfaith prayer service with a focus on mercy and peace. One of our guests was an imam from the Islamic Association of Raleigh. There were prayers, songs, and a moderated discussion between the imam and me.
In the discussion he spoke about how sometimes people would say to him, go back to where you came from, and he said, “Does that mean Washington, D.C. where I grew up?” He spoke with great love about his wife and children, about what it was like to become a father for the first time, and with gratitude about the way his own parents raised him and prepared him to be a father himself.
He spoke about mulch. One day, he said, “I was spreading mulch in my yard and I had a lot left over. So I went over to my neighbor and asked him if he needed any. He said yes. And that began a relationship between me and my next door neighbor.” Sometimes, he said, we need to get our hands dirty. It grounds us. It reminds us that we have more in common than we think.
There was a reception afterward, with pita bread and hummus and chicken kabobs, and a large crowd gathered, a mixed crowd of Christians and Muslims and Jews, and a sense of something shared, a sense that no one was being labeled by their religious faith, but instead by their human story. Dialogue, listening, and food all help make that happen.
At the reception, two women stood together holding plates and talking with each other. One was Catholic, the other Muslim. They had not met before this evening, but now, talking with each other, they realized they lived in the same neighborhood, and they decided, right there, that they were going to start a book discussion group, and invite their friends and neighbors.
In the discussion in the church both the imam and I talked about where we have seen mercy and peace lived out in our own lives, in people and circumstances we have encountered along the way. We agreed that neither mercy nor peace get a lot of attention in a world that seems fixated on other things. They are like seeds that are out there for those who can see. At the end, our church presented him with a gift, an icon of St. Francis of Assisi meeting the sultan during the Crusades, the two of them embracing after speaking of peace.
In the discussion in the church, after 40 minutes or so, the last question from the moderator was this: Who do you like in the World Series, the Indians or the Cubs? He was a Nationals fan and I a Red Sox fan – what to say? But the question seemed fitting, not so much about who wins, but how sometimes it’s just the ordinary things that can lead us to encounter, hospitality, and grace.
Fr. Steve Patti is pastor of the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh.