A Rabbi, a mayor and a superintendent of schools walk into a mosque for Friday noon prayer. The Rabbi is greeted by numerous worshipers, “Rabbi, good to see you at worship again.” I respond, “Pleased to be here. Please meet Superintendent Jones from [school district] and Mayor Martinez from [city].
I am hosting the mayor and superintendent as the regional Religion Sector Specialist (RSS) a position initiated by the Peninsula Community Foundation (PCF) in the San Francisco Bay Area. This initiative is one application of the design of Regional Clergy Engagement, my initial task when hired by the PCF.
I guided 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 stand when they stand, sit when they kneel on the floor and remain seated when they bow, head to the floor. It is parallel to when I visit a Catholic Church – stand when they stand, sit when they kneel.
Over time, I have worked through my sense of place in worship in the over 150 congregations I have attended of various denominations, languages, nationalities and range of traditions. When I worship at the mosque on my own, I join worshipers on the floor, retaining my position when they bow.
The Mosque was the most complex – prayer on the floor. Also, separate seating for women. I have thought and rethought my policy on attendance where women sit separately. This includes Orthodox Jewish services and extends to attendance in congregations where 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 this position, for the first time in history, in which my presence links every clergy in the region as colleagues and as community. My presence is a statement which models their relationship of personal respect, enhancing the foundation of the regional clergy network. It is a critical aspect of their mutual engagement in Regional and Area Dialogues. The Dialogues shed light on the distinction between our held perceptions and misperceptions, and subsequently the exchange over shared and divergent beliefs, values and practices.
In worship at every congregation, 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 my 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 do not need to 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. Thus, I began years ago as a guest and have transitioned to a worshiper. At one point, when a pastor said, “Let us pray,” I realized it was an invitation to engage in prayer that I could fulfill as invited, expressing 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 each of our scriptures, recited in worship, may impact our perceptions of our neighbors when we meet them on “the town square.”
At the mosque, Friday noon prayer, actually from 1:15 – 2:00, begins with prayers recited individually by worshipers as they arrive. For those who do not arrive in time, they remain after the service to recite their individual prayers. The 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, as I do in all the congregations when I worship.
The service concludes with announcements, including an introduction of the mayor and superintendent, a welcome to me, and concluding communal prayers. Following the service, many worshipers come to greet the guests, share their city of residence, their children’s schools, sometimes a perspective from their city or school experience, 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 a 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 or principal. This perception, which we have fostered, stands in contrast to more common divisive perceptions.
It is the norm, confirmed nationally, that clergy and civic leaders are unknown to each other. The Peninsula based innovation of the design for Regional Clergy Engagement has created that alternate context. Relationships are fostered through regional and area Dialogues, three times a year, through community partnerships between congregations and institutions of the civic sectors, and through other individual and institutional 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.
Imagine a mayor’s exchange with a constituent, “Hey, guess what I did last week? I shared in Friday noon prayer at the Mosque, which is in Belmont, and which is actually at 1:15. It was a thrill to share in worship at a Mosque. I had never thought about that, or if I could, or how to fit in. I’ll take you.”
Note: In June of 2011, Belmont 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 more 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
firstname.lastname@example.org 650.740.4411 rabbijaymiller.com