Thursday, November 1st, 2012. A normally quiet afternoon at Tangaza College is suddenly vibrant. Life buzzes by the massive benjamina trees just in front of Pamoja Cafeteria. Tables are laden with pots of steaming rice and meat stew. There are several crates of soft drinks. Some excited students sway to the beat of the music reverberating nearby.
This celebration was All Saints Day. Celebrated every November 1st, in the Catholic tradition, it is a time to remember not only the well known saints, but all holy men and women, even those beyond the boundaries of the institutional church (Payne, OCD). To mark this solemn occasion, free lunches were generously offered to members of Tangaza College by Muslim neighbors as part of their own important celebration, Eid-ul-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice). Indeed this was an extraordinary, atypical way of commemorating the feast of all saints, a celebration in style.
Some watched the festivities – Muslims, as represented by members of the Respect Foundation and Christians of Tangaza College, celebrating with Christians – and labelled it "unusual," "historic," "rare," or even "remarkable."
The festivity started with Fr. Steven Payne, OCD, Principal of Tangaza College, welcoming our Muslim brothers and sisters. He continued by reminding the gathering of the positive attitude of the Catholic Church towards different faiths and traditions, particularly Muslims, as expressed in the documents of the Vatican Council II. Lumen Gentium, one of its documents, states that "the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us, adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge humankind." One declaration says that it is the duty of Catholics to foster unity and charity among all peoples. He also stated clearly that the Church has high regard and esteem for Muslims who share some beliefs with Christians, value leading moral lives, and worship God, especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
Fr. Payne then welcomed Mr. Fatih Akdogan, Chairperson of the Respect Foundation, Kenya Chapter. Mr. Fatih briefly explained the meaning and significance of Eid-ul-Adha to the Islamic community. The feast is one of the two greatest feasts in the Islamic calendar marked at the end of the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca every year. It is a celebration that commemorates Ibrahim's (Abraham's) submission and consequent tribulations when God asked him to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. As the story goes, confirming Abraham's total submission, God provided a ram to be sacrificed in place of the son. During Eid-ul-Adha, Muslims slaughter animals as a sign of their willingness to make sacrifices in order to remain right with God. The meat is divided into three parts. One portion is retained by the family or community, the second portion is donated to the needy, while the third portion is given to friends and neighbors, regardless of race and religion. Quoting Yunus Emre, a Sufi poet, Fatih added that this love extends to all of creation because God is the creator of everything.
The Chairperson of this organization that promotes interfaith and intercultural understanding went on to say that both Muslims and Christians describe Abraham as a "father in faith." This gives Christians and Muslims one common heritage in faith. In spite of Christian-Muslim religious strife in many countries, the Qur'an recognises Christians as those nearest to them; both are children of Abraham and believe in the same God or Allah.
There were no elaborate speeches, as would normally have been expected of an institution of higher learning. Soon, I recited a universal prayer of blessing for the food. Then everyone present was invited to share the meal before us.
This was a one of a kind treat. There was enough food to feed more than 500 people. Laughter and excitement ruled the air. Amid the sounds of joy and eating, there were silent questions, some of which may never be answered. But above all else, there was the curiosity to know what these celebrations were for.
Fr. Steven Mr. Fatih and I are optimistic that the new-found relationship between Tangaza College and the Respect Foundation will be nurtured by all concerned parties. Grateful that their Muslim brothers and sisters took the initiative to extend their generosity and love, the Tangaza fraternity also hopes and prays that the spirit and embers of such inter-faith liaisons will be reignited every day.
Sr. Lilian Curaming is a Franciscan Missionary of Mary, Directress of St. Anthony of Padua Institute of Africa (SAPIA) and Coordinator of Franciscan Studies of Tangaza College