On 9/11 I was visiting my sister in Evanston, Illinois. Evanston is a town on Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. When I was growing up, it was largely white, with some Blacks. Now it is extremely diverse, with Hispanics having a slight majority. A day or so before 9/11, my sister saw a small announcement in her church bulletin that there would be a commemorative walk from a local mosque to a temple, and we immediately decided to join in.

It turns out the mosque was in the process of being built. The land had originally been purchased by a Christian group for a church, but they either ran out of money or disbanded, and the Muslim community had pooled funds and bought the unfinished building several years ago. They were just beginning the interior transformation to a mosque, and a young woman in headscarf and robe showed us through the inside with great pride.

Outside there was a large potluck lunch. Unfortunately, we had just eaten so we consoled ourselves with a handful of delicious Mid-eastern pastries as we listened to the speakers: the Mayor, the “leader of the Muslim community” (they never said the word Imam), and a rabbi. The last person to speak was a police sergeant who was the voice of PeaceAble Cities, one of the event’s sponsors. He explained that the focus of the day was to get to know strangers. He borrowed South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela words from many years ago: “Safety and security don’t just happen; they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”

PeaceAble Cities is based on the idea that if we really understood this,  we could eliminate much of the violence in the world. So every 15 minutes along the walk’s route, the organization arranged that there would be someone with a sign that said, “Change Partners.” Upon spotting the sign, we were to  stop talking to the person we were walking with and start talking to someone we didn’t know. We were even given some suggestions for conversation topics, not the usual stranger talk at all, but things like, “What makes you happy?” and “Why are you here on the walk today?”

And it worked. I met a high school teacher, a real estate agent, an artist, and an English and Drama Professor. When the latter asked me what I did, I replied that I was a former academic and was now retired.

And while that is true, it isn’t completely factual. I did retire a few months ago after 26 years as an academic, and this is the first Fall since 1971 that I haven’t been involved in the beginning of the semester. But apart for the fact that I’m not sure anyone can ever be a former academic, I am still an active one, just not a salaried one. I realized that I wasn’t telling people that I am the Academic Dean for Cherry Hill Seminary because it is volunteer work. I am putting a lot of time and energy into my work for it, but as I have always done volunteer work of one kind or another, it didn’t spring to mind when asked what I did. And the fact that it didn’t, embarrassed me.

I decided to rectify that immediately and when the Change Partners sign next appeared, I went up to a stranger, introduced myself and told him what I did. I think I must have been expecting some resistance from him. After all, Cherry Hill is a Pagan Seminary. I should have realized that the commemorative walk only drew certain kinds of people.

Turned out the stranger was a Methodist minister. He was very interested in Cherry Hill and how we organize our Master’s of Divinity program and the whole movement toward accreditation. Right before the next Change Partners, he told me that a local Druid group had been meeting in his church basement.

The walk ended in a Jewish community center and synagogue that has won just about every award that exists for architecture and environmental awareness. Parts of it were breathtakingly elegant and beautiful. The children’s center was especially appealing. As an example, the cabinets were made out of pressed sunflower shells – no toxic glues used although they were as hard as wood. But my favorite was a wall in the play room carved to look like the old town of Jerusalem, complete with a large moon in the sky with a sliding cover, where the children learned about lunar time, the basis for the Jewish calendar.

The day was about community – from the coming together to buy property for a mosque and feed the neighbors to a community’s celebration of faith, creativity and connection to the Earth. And in between the two sacred sites we participated in a small ritual to help end violence by talking to strangers

 

« »