Amid a vexed political and social climate, three religious leaders in North Texas—a priest, an imam, and a rabbi—proved it’s possible to come together in times of division. The Rev. Dr. Chris Girata, Imam Omar Suleiman, and Rabbi David Stern gathered at Saint Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas last Thursday to discuss where their respective faiths diverge, and where they unite. The panel discussion, presented by the Women of Saint Michael and moderated by the Rev. Amy Heller, drew in people of all backgrounds.
The three panelists, who talked like old pals, helped facilitate a light-hearted environment. As religious leaders they have met before on more somber occasions. Suleiman and Stern, for example, both spoke at a vigil at Thanks-Giving Square following the shooting of Dallas police officers in July 2016. It was refreshing to see these men converse candidly, in more relaxed circumstances. The solidarity shown by the priest, imam, and rabbi enlightened and inspired many of the hundreds of people gathered at the church.
Sandra Klingeman, who has belonged to an interfaith group for a number of years and attended the discussion, said she has heard the three leaders speak before, and knew they were among the best faces of each of their religions.
“I think I learned more about their relationship with each other and their sense of humor about this,” Kingeman said. “Because, you know, I don’t know all of the details of Islam or Judaism but I have friends in all of them.”
To promote understanding, Suleiman, the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research in Las Colinas and a professor of Islamic studies at SMU, invited people to approach a Muslim woman and ask her why she covers her hair. Stern, rabbi at Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El, talked about the idea that all disagreements are precious. Girata, the rector at St. Michael, discussed the issues that stem from being geographically and physically secluded from one another. All three speakers said that the way we view morality is changing, and that consciousness is the ultimate resistance to bigotry.
Difficult questions were asked, each speaker delivering sophisticated answers and throwing in a joke or two. Several attendees were enamored of how the men set aside their differences and communicated while casually teasing each other.
Tom Stewart, whose wife Tricia Stewart helped host the event, said they had been looking forward to this night for months.
“The commonalities of the faiths is what really stuck with me the most. The similarities and not the differences,” Stewart said.
Farhana Yesmin picked up on Girata discussing seclusion in Dallas, and said she felt welcomed by the interfaith panel, which opened up an opportunity to understand other communities.
“I was expecting people of different faiths coming together and I found exactly what I was looking for,” she said.
After the conversation ended, people were invited to stay back and explore the church or speak with someone of another faith. Food was served, as Muslims and Christians and Jews spoke with atheists and agnostics, all mingling their new understanding of religion into a conversation.
Anna Eikerts said she had knowledge of all three religions, but was impressed by how well the three religious leaders interacted.
“It was interesting to see the different perspectives. I was raised Christian and converted to Islam so I actually knew a lot about Christianity, to begin with,” she said. “But, as a convert, to see all the different sides and see them interact and have a dialogue was really interesting.”
The conversation shed light on the possibility that people of all races can coexist by developing the maturity to understand one another intellectually and compassionately. Though deeper ideologies can cause conflict in a discussion, the night was devoid of hatred.
“This was better than I expected. There was such a warmth about the experience that I really enjoyed,” said Amal Said, an attendee at the event. “I love how well they communicated with each other and that it wasn’t a bash-fest. Everyone was under the same understanding that they were all in this together, and that we’re trying to grow to be better.”