Religious Contact Theory

We remember with sorrow those who death has taken from our midst during the past year…

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter we remember them.

In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now part of us, as we remember them.

–Yom Kippur Prayer

Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Yom Kippur last week starting at sundown on Friday, September 13. The day of atonement is often considered the holiest day of the year by Jews. Yom Kippur was succinctly summed up on Twitter when Jewish comedian Marc Maron tweeted, “This is Jewish ‘I’m sorry let me live day.’ Have at it.” It’s a day filled with fasting, prayer, and confession when Jewish people ask G-d for the chance to live for one more year.

A few years ago, Yom Kippur may have come and gone without me even noticing. During my time living in New York City, however, I became very good friends with two wonderful Orthodox Jewish women. They each gave me an open invitation to come to their homes on any or all Sabbath Fridays to share Shabbat feast with them. One of the two women in particular had very few friends who weren’t Orthodox Jews, and she loved having intentional interfaith conversations with me and my spouse. I learned so much about the Jewish faith, the wealth of ritual and tradition, and the commonalities we share. Because of their friendship, their hospitality, their ardent pursuit of meaningful conversation, I was highly aware of Yom Kippur this year. My life and faith are so much richer because of my knew respect and reverence for the Jewish faith. I love borrowing grieving and mourning rituals like the prayer above from the Jewish faith. They sit in pain so gracefully. I have so much to learn.

Last week I finished reading The Faith Club, a book about a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim woman. What started as a project to write an interfaith children’s book ended up becoming deep, meaningful friendships. The book documents their struggles and triumphs as women of faith. It’s worth a read. It’s really a story about what changes for these women as they start to care about the other two. It made me so grateful for the opportunities I have had over the last few years to form real friendships with women of different faith.

It was in Kenya of all places that I made Muslim friends. The last two years I’ve been working with and writing about a Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. It’s a free girls school started by a Muslim man named Abdul Kassim. About half of their students are Muslim and half are Christian. My last two trips to Kibera had me there during Ramadan, and both times I was invited to Abdul’s house to break the fast with his friends and family. I learned so much about their holy month of fasting that I didn’t know before. At one point, a Muslim student was talking about some of her struggles to a Christian woman, and at the end of the conversation the student asked the woman to pray for her.

“How should I pray?” the woman asked, wanting to be respectful of the girl’s Muslim faith.

“Pray however you pray,” she said simply.

It was a wonderful invitation to fearlessly celebrate an inter-faith moment.

I believe in contact theory, having human contact with people who are different from us. Crossing human made boundaries and bumping up against people we are not supposed to know is the work of justice. The work of the Gospel. We intentionally cross boundaries and inform our consciences so we are caring about real human beings, not just issues. When I taught theology, I would teach about other faiths with passion and vigor, but I didn’t have friends who were of different faiths. That takes work. I’m proud to say I have done that work. I believe my life and my actions are different because I have friends who are Jewish and Muslim (and atheist and….). I’m a more compassionate global citizen and a stronger woman of faith. In light of events like 9/11 and ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine, it becomes a time when it is especially important to push through to the other side of ignorance by caring about people of different faiths.

Published by Ellie Roscher

Ellie Roscher is the author of How Coffee Saved My Life, and Other Stories of Stumbling to Grace. She holds a master’s degree in Theology/Urban Ministry from Luther Seminary and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

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