A Rabbi, a mayor and a superintendent of schools walk into a mosque for Friday noon prayer. The Rabbi is greeted by numerous worshipers, “Good to see you at worship again.”
As the Religion Sector Specialist initiated by the Peninsula Community Foundation, and, subsequently, Executive Director of the Peninsula Clergy Network, I am hosting these guests and respond, “Pleased to be here. Please meet Superintendent Jones from [school district in the county] and Mayor Martinez from [city in the county].
I lead the mayor and superintendent to the usual chairs set in the back, among those worshipers needing chairs. Most of the 250 worshipers take their place standing in rows, shoulder to shoulder, facing Mecca. We sit when they kneel on the floor, stand when they stand and sit when they bow, head to the floor. It is parallel to when I visit a Catholic Church – sit when they sit, stand when they stand, sit when they kneel.
When I worship at the mosque on my own, I join worshipers kneeling on the floor, retaining my position when they bow. Over time, I have worked through my sense of place in worship in congregations of different faiths, over 150 congregations in the last 10 years – the full range of denominations, languages, nationalities and range of traditions.
The Mosque was the most complex – prayer on the floor, as well as separate seating for women. I have thought and rethought my “position” on attendance where women sit separately, which is not my tradition. This includes Orthodox Jewish services and extends to attendance where all sit together, but I know women are excluded from becoming clergy.
I am a representative of all clergy, to all clergy. Encountering differences in practice and belief are factors I acknowledge as I personally join with colleagues at their congregations. It is my honor and privilege to hold a position, for the first time in history, in which my presence links all, as colleagues and as community. My presence is a statement of a relationship of personal respect that exemplifies the foundation of the Regional Clergy Engagement, and critically, in the Regional Dialogues and Area Dialogues. The Dialogues shed light on the distinction between our held perceptions and mis-perceptions, and subsequently the exchange over shared and divergent beliefs and values.
In all worship, it was quickly clear to me that I always sit among the worshipers, comfortable adapting my participation, as I wrote in the booklet A Local Officials Guide to Working with Clergy and Congregations, “determining what practices will show respect for their faith tradition, as well as be true to your own personal beliefs.”
I realized that I would not stand at the back of a Catholic Church, so as not to be uncomfortable when they kneel. I also need not exclude myself from the “worship space” as some statement to ensure myself or others that I am not violating my faith or intruding in theirs by sitting among them as they worship. As a rule, I join in common readings, verses and songs.
I began years ago as a guest and transitioned to a worshiper. At one point, when a pastor said “let us pray,” I realized that it was an invitation to engage in prayer that I could fulfill as invited, expressed in my own prayers, enhanced by the power of the time and space and a community in prayer.
A colleague once shared with me that he looked out, saw me in the congregation and pondered for the first time how the Bible verse that week reflected on non-Christians. We both shared a greater understanding of how all our scriptures, recited in worship, may impact our perceptions of our neighbors when we meet them in “the town square.”
At the mosque, Friday noon prayer, from 1:15 pm to 2:00 pm, begins with prayers recited individually by worshipers as they arrive. For those who do not arrive in time, they remain after the formal service to recite their individual prayers. The formal service begins with the call to prayer in Arabic and a sermon in English. The sermon constitutes the major portion of time in the service. The guests I have hosted and I consistently find the sermons informative, inclusive of a common message, and an inspiration to all of us.
The service concludes with announcements, including an introduction of the mayor and superintendent, a welcome to me, and concluding communal prayers. Many worshipers come to greet the guests, share their city of residence, their children’s schools and their appreciation that these community leaders would join them in worship.
We retrieve our shoes from the rack and head outside for further conversation and the gift from that week’s vendor of traditional food.
It is to their shared credit and benefit that worshipers and guests now retain the knowledge that there is a relationship between those of the Islamic faith and any mayor or school superintendent. This perception, which we have fostered, contrasts with more common divisive perceptions.
In a norm which is now confirmed nationally, clergy and civic leaders are unknown to each other. The Peninsula based innovation of the design for Regional Clergy Engagement has created that context. Relationships are fostered in three times a year regional and area Dialogues, community partnerships between congregations and institutions of the civic sectors, and other individual and instructional collaborations.
In that context, these shared worship opportunities extend the understanding that the Peninsula includes the widest diversity of congregations, where they specifically are, who their leaders are and in this case, the unique practices of the Muslim community… “Hey, guess what I did last week? I shared in Friday noon pray at the Mosque, which is in Belmont, and which is actually at 1:00. It was a thrill to share in worship at a Mosque. Something I had never thought about doing, or if I could, or how to fit in. I’ll take you sometime.”
Note: In June of 2011, Mayor Omar Ahmad, the only Muslim city council person in California at the time, passed away of a heart attack. I shared in the funeral at the mosque with several clergy colleagues. At that event, I provided guidance to numerous local leaders who attended, uncertain of maneuvering the customs of Islamic worship. It is heartening to know that now community leaders visiting the mosque, thankfully to share in celebration, will be guided by the growing number of their own colleagues, who will know customs at worship and be known by the worshipers of the Muslim community. I know that their experience will be fuller and that their presence will be more appreciated because of the Muslim worshipers’ knowledge of who these “non-strangers” are who have come to share with their community.
Rabbi Jay Miller RELIGION SECTOR 3.0
1.0 On the Town Square 2.0 Walls of Separation
3.0 Alignment: Among Congregations – Within Society