As a child growing up in rural Illinois in a small farm town, I only dreamt that I would some day travel beyond the boundaries of my homeland. No one in my circle of relationships traveled very far from home, so I was left with my imagination and assumptions about people who are different from my community, religion, and family. My culture was rural, Catholic, and German. Everyone I knew and interacted with had a similar ancestry and all attended the one Catholic Church in town.
I grew up with a bias towards my own culture and judged cultures and religions that were different from my own based upon this perspective. Since no one challenged my Catholic beliefs, I left home for college somewhat sheltered and mostly uninformed about other religions and cultures. While at college, I made new and diverse friends and I would bring these friends home with me. My father said to me when I left for college, whoever I bring home is always welcome at our table. My mother has eight years of formal education in a one room rural school house and has lived her entire life in the same community where she was born and raised Catholic. Several years ago, my mother spoke with profound eloquence and simple affection about my classmates and friends that she cooked for and fed around her kitchen table. She said she grew up prejudiced because she never met anyone who was Jewish or Muslim. But after providing a place for these guests at her table, she grew to respect and love them as much as her eight children did. She is grateful for having reached out to people of diverse backgrounds and religions. She taught us that it is around a table that friends are made and prejudices disappear.
My recent trip to Turkey refreshed these good memories around my mother's kitchen table. It was an educational and cultural exchange program to meet with university professors and community leaders in Turkey to promote international and interfaith dialogue. The program was organized by a non-profit organization in St. Louis, MO named the Niagara Foundation, and I had the honor to be selected to join. My experiences in Turkey of sharing meals in the homes of university professors and their families opened my eyes to our common bond even though an ocean and religion separates us. It was around their family tables that I again was reminded what my mother taught us: that much of the prejudice that exists among different cultures and religions is because we do not invite others into our homes and cook a meal for them. Warm food and kind conversation have the capacity to create bonds that can erase prejudices.
I was expecting family homes in Turkey to be quite different from mine, but instead, amidst the slight differences in cuisine and not wearing shoes, I knew I was at home. The bountiful bean salads, stuffed peppers, seasoned couscous, lemon chicken, lamb, lentil soup, cucumber salad, baklava, and more all adorned my hosts' tables. How I wanted my mother to experience this! So, upon my return home, I invited Muslim friends to her home for a meal around her table. It was a simple but significant meal that bridged two cultures and two religions as one.
Having this opportunity to interact intimately with Turkish families reminds me of the story of the prophet Abraham, the father of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim followers. He welcomed three strangers into his home. And because of his hospitality, he was blessed a hundredfold with a son, Isaac, who was promised to him and Sarah in their old age by the visitors who were angels disguised as men (Genesis 18: 1-15). As Abraham and Sarah's son Isaac is a symbol of God's generosity, so too the Muslim families are a symbol to me of the blessings that hospitality brings to peoples' lives.
Traveling through Turkey, my appreciation for the people grew. From the sprawling city of Istanbul to the rural cities touching the Black Sea, I could see the similarities in lifestyle, just like in the U.S. The rural countryside appeared similar to my rural home, and as our bus traveled through the rolling hills dotted with wheat fields and small towns, it reminded me of home. Stopping at a gas station and communicating with local rural people who do not speak English, it was comforting how well we could understand each other without speaking the same language. A smile, a handshake, and a meal go a long way.
While in Istanbul, I enjoyed seeing the ripe watermelons and other fruits and vegetables being loaded into wooden carts and carried into the market. The urban markets in the U.S. are similar to the markets in Turkey, not in scale but in essence. Both possess an energy that tantalizes the senses, where a local harvest awaits to be tasted and savored at home. It's as if time stands still among vendors and shoppers, bartering and engaging in rituals that have persevered and evolved over the centuries for generations. Whether in Turkey or the U.S., shopping in an open air market unites humanity in a common ritual that is at the heart of every culture: how we produce, purchase, and prepare our food.
The occasional neighborhood mosque blends in with Turkish urban life, and upon entering a mosque courtyard, I found luscious green space with colorful flowers bordering red tomatoes and green peppers, a quiet respite from gray urban life. Catholic churches often provide the same reprieve for busy urban residents and tired tourists who grow weary of the harshness of industrial life and the demands that city life places on them. Churches, synagogues, and mosques provide sacred places to pause and be refreshed, knowing that God is present in the most obscure and discreet corners of life. Perhaps this is one essential role that religion procured through the centuries: to provide shelter from the utilitarian survival rituals being play out around us. Whether church steeples, synagogue towers, or mosque minarets, all remind us to pause and remember that when our day's work is complete, there is more to be aware of and more to count than the coins in our pocket.
During our time in Turkey, we visited several universities, which was a highlight for me. As a university professor and social worker, I was eager to meet professors and students to discuss their curriculum and scholarship. Our interactions were informative and engaging. While on campus, I was invited to attend the Friday (Jumu'ah) prayer services, the name of which is derived from the Arabic word that means "gathering." Muslims believe to gather in one place as one soul is a pillar of their faith. I was deeply moved by the prayer, and felt united with the people in the room. It was an honor for me to be shown by a faculty member the ritual washing of the hands, forearms, head, and feet with a threefold movement of the hand. This Middle Eastern ritual is retained in the Catholic liturgy with the priest washing his hands prior to the Eucharistic prayer. The rinsing out the mouth, blowing out of the nose, and scrubbing out the ears reminded me of the Catholic ritual of cleansing the mind, mouth, and heart with a threefold movement of the thumb before the Gospel is read on the Sabbath. The sermon (Khutbah) was impossible for me to follow, but my host was gracious in whispering to me a translation. During the Catholic prayer service, we too stand and kneel throughout our prayer, being reminded that God is great (Allahu akbar). Although I did not understand the words spoken, my soul was refreshed and nourished by the ritual prayers.
When I was a young man living in a homogeneous culture, I did not seek to understand and appreciate what other cultures believed and practiced, nor did I challenge the beliefs of my ancestors. Today I embrace the faith of my ancestors from a different advantage point, having traveled and tasted other religions and cultures. This new vision is both a gift and a responsibility, which calls me to recognize the sacredness of the faith that has been handed down to me. Returning to the U.S., I brought with me the Abrahamic thread that unites all Muslims, Jews, and Christians in our quest to know and serve God. Each day I wrap my waist and my heart with this thread so that I might seek the intersections, both within and across each faith community. This is my responsibility, which I am learning from the Vatican II teachings of the Catholic community and the Hizmet (Gulen) movement in Turkey.
Riding in a boat on the sea that bisects Istanbul, I envisioned the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans who sailed these same seas. This city is at the crossroads of human civilization, where war and peace have shaped people's lives for centuries. I imagined Romans conquering this city and the Crusades trampling through it; I imagined the Ottomans achieving domination ach le an indelible cultural and religious mark on the fabric of this region and creating the culture we know today as Turkish.
The Niagara Foundation is bridging the vast expanses that separate the two continents, the two religions, the two cultures. I am confident that this effort will have immense consequences. In the memorialized words of Robert F. Kennedy, who in June, 1966, delivered the Day of Affirmation Speech at the University of Cape Town to the National Union of South African Students: "Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy, these ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
And so I, too, have newfound responsibilities since I have toured Turkey through the generosity of the Niagara Foundation. I pray for the courage to stand up for the ideals embodied in my Catholic faith, and to stand against injustices by embracing Niagara's mission "to serve societal peace, love, and friendship wisely and compassionately in support of human dignity and the common good by striving to bring forth the common values of humanity; values such as understanding, tolerance, respect, and compassion."
Gary Behrman is Adjunct Professor at Washington University in St. Louis