By Dick Benner, editor/publisher of the Canadian Mennonite
It’s been a couple years now, but the experience stands out in my mind as if it were yesterday. Engin Sezen invited my wife, Marlene, and me to share a meal with his family and his brother’s after dusk during Ramadan.
Even though Engin was a stranger to me, I was encouraged by a fellow Christian, Leon Kehl, to get to know Engin better and to accept his invitation to dine together at this important Muslim religious ritual in the interests of better Christian-Muslim relations. Engin is very intelligent and accomplished, Leon told me, and you will enjoy his company as your friendship develops.
Kehl, a member of Floradale Mennonite Church, had been working at getting Christians and Muslims together for several years. I admired what he was doing and shared his conviction that we need to counter the prevailing tendency of violence between these two religions with the belief that “love is stronger than hate. It just takes longer.”
Even though we happily accepted Engin’s invitation and anticipated the experience, we had our questions. This would be our first exposure to Muslim religious culture. Would we like the food? Would there be a language barrier? Would we say or do something unwittingly that would offend our friends? What would we find in common? Would there be enough commonality for us to carry on a conversation?
These questions, these anxieties, were all unfounded. After locating their small apartment in town, we were given a warm welcome. The Turkish family, even though slightly bashful, made us feel right at home. The kitchen was well-lighted and filled with the aroma of good food. The kitchen table was overflowing with steaming dishes; other food was boiling on the stove.
Since we weren’t familiar with authentic Middle Eastern cuisine, the various dishes were explained to us, taking away any hesitation that this was going to be anything but a delightful dining experience. Before we sat down to indulge, we knew there would be prayers and perhaps other religious rituals as part of the Ramadan celebration. We entered into this shared experience, which had similarities to our own German-Swiss practice of saying grace before our meals.
We were feeling more and more comfortable with our host and hostesses. Conversation flowed freely during the meal; there was no language barrier and we soon felt at ease as we shared information about our families, our children and our elders. We found that we had a lot more in common in family life than we had differences.
As we retired to a comfortable sitting area to further get to know each other, we noticed another common practice. Yes, the women stayed in the kitchen to clean up and do the dishes, just the same as happens in our own families of origin. But it didn’t take long until they joined us. It developed into a family visit very similar to our own culture.
As we explained our own journey of church life and professional development–our hopes and aspirations–it soon became clear that here, too, we both had very similar goals for ourselves and our families. We asked for a more in-depth explanation of Ramadan, expressed regret that through the recent 9/11 tragedy, the tension between Muslims and Christians had intensified.
Even though it was getting late for us, we finished up the conversation with genuine warm feelings and valued the gaining of this new friendship. As we got up to go, we were given gifts by our hosts, some beautiful handmade pottery pieces. This was more than we expected.
It was an inspired evening where we gained new appreciation for persons of a different culture, where our world was expanded with enlightenment on one important tenet of the Muslim faith, all in the context of home and family, forming the beginnings of a new friendship that was graciously offered.
As Engin Sezen develops a new communication venue for the 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims living the Kitchener-Waterloo area, I hope that one of his goals is to pave the way for better Muslim-Christian relations through highlighting experiences like ours. We will learn that we have far more in common than we have differences.
Likewise, my hope is that as he brings together the disparate peoples of Middle East from different nationalities and cultures within the Islamic world, he will be able to show the many similarities that already exist. Even among yourselves, there is more that unites than divides you.
May you find peace and inspiration in your commonalities.