The last month has been a roller coaster for me personally. A friend, who became a friend only through interfaith dialogue, was grieving. Her younger sister had suddenly been taken to the hospital with several imminent health concerns, and finally after about three weeks of ups and downs, hope and despair, she passed away. I don’t need to explain how my friend felt; grief translates across boundaries of geography, culture and faith. What was interesting to me was how I felt, and how I reacted to this illness and death. How, even in the midst of grief and pain, I could learn an interfaith lesson.
My friend Nancy is much older than I am, retired from the public library system and impassioned about interfaith dialogue like me. We often organize and attend interfaith events together, and we like to tell the story about how we met, and how we pulled each other deeper into the “web of interfaith.” It’s a fun story, and I really thank God for bringing Nancy into my life.
Those who work in this field know that often times one’s family members are less than fully on board. Nancy’s younger sister Mary would allow herself to be dragged, rolling her eyes in a signature expression, to our mosque on a weeknight or a library gathering at noon. I had several conversations with her, and I always found her open and willing to learn, yet obviously strong in her own Lutheran faith. That’s the best kind of interfaith partner, in my opinion.
When Mary fell ill so suddenly, I extended my hand to Nancy in comfort and assistance. I don’t know what she thought, or whether she needed it, but that’s just something we Muslims do. When I went to visit Mary in the hospital, I discovered that it’s also just something that Christians do. I got off my high horse a bit after that, and learned to relate to a very transcendent religious practice: visiting the sick. I only went to visit Mary once, but I know many of her church friends who went several times.
When Mary died, I attended the service. That was another eye-opener for me. The Islamic prayer service for a dead Muslim is so short that I missed the last one at my mosque because I was five minutes late. At Nancy’s Lutheran church I heard a sermon, joined in several hymns, and read about Mary’s life from a small brochure with her picture. It was longer than I had anticipated, but it was worth it, even if I was the only hijab-clad brown girl at a white Christian funeral. It was an education for me, sadly, but I am glad I participated.
Illness and death, grief and sadness, are all human emotions. The fact that we can come together when someone is sad is an amazing aspect of interfaith work. I don’t know which kind of memorial is better, my short one or Nancy’s long one. What I do know is that Nancy appreciated my presence, even when I joked that I stuck out like a sore thumb. It told her without words that we were friends outside of the interfaith workshop as well. We could feel for each other regardless of our age difference or our skin color or our preferred form of worship. We were friends, even though what brought us together in the first place was a desire to share our religious traditions with each other and that has formed the majority of our interactions since then. May Mary rest in peace, and I hope that Nancy and I have many more years of fulfilling conversations and activities, pulling others into our “interfaith web.”
Image courtesy of Tulsa Funeral Homes.