Reflection: Connecting With Other Faiths

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Reflection: Connecting With Other Faiths

Students and faculty from St. Benedict's Prep visit the Noor ul-Iman School in Monmouth Junction as part of a

Students and faculty from St. Benedict's Prep visit the Noor ul-Iman School in Monmouth Junction as part of a "school swap."

Students and faculty from St. Benedict's Prep visit the Noor ul-Iman School in Monmouth Junction as part of a "school swap."

Students and faculty from St. Benedict's Prep visit the Noor ul-Iman School in Monmouth Junction as part of a "school swap."

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About six months ago, I found myself sitting in a room at an elite private school near Princeton for a professional development seminar on “Mindfulness and Meditation.” I noticed that I was the only male, and the only teacher from a Catholic school. “This is going to be awkward…” I thought. 

As the coordinator of SBP’s Gray Bee Ministry, one of my tasks is to offer opportunities for our community to engage in prayer. From what I gathered from the seminar, mindfulness is basically like prayer but without God. I wondered how I was going to have a discussion with these people about this “hot new topic,” which I practice daily in our community, and which Benedictine monks have been doing for 1,500 years.

Right before the program started, two women wearing  colorful, floor-length hijabs entered. I was curious to know more about who they were. They were administrators, I would learn, at the only accredited Muslim school in New Jersey. About half way into the program, the leader took us into a meditation room. She told us to write down a list of things we were grateful for, and to “send out our thanks into the ‘Universe.’” 

Dr. Glenn Cassidy
Students from St. Benedict’s and the Noor-ul-Iman School gather together in icebreaking activities to get to know each other.

Who is ‘the Universe’?” I thought. Giving thanks to some abstract, nameless entity was pretty uncompelling to say the least. I want to give thanks to a “You,” a Somebody for giving me these gifts in my life. I wondered if the two hijabis were thinking the same thing I was. At lunch, I decided to introduce myself to the two Muslim women. I wanted  to get to know them. I was amazed to find out that one of the administrators, Mrs. Tammy El-Mansoori, an American-born Egyptian from Pennsylvania, also teaches religion to the seniors at her school. Even though we teach from two distinct religious perspectives, we found we both address so many of the same topics in our classes: understanding God’s unconditional love for us, seeking beauty in our studies and work, and finding meaning in an increasingly secularized world. 

The students called her “Mrs. Tammy.” She shared that she grew up in a culturally Muslim family.  In high school, she decided to go on a journey to understand Islam on a deeper level–a decision which involved her choosing to wear the traditional headscarf worn by many (but not all) Muslim women. So much of her story reflected my own. We decided to keep in touch by exchanging books with each other and coming up with ideas about how our students could collaborate with each other. About three months later, she was in my World Religions class teaching my students about what it’s like to be Muslim in America.

After my class, we met with Dr. Glenn Cassidy, Mr. Louis Laine, and a group of juniors and seniors to plan a school swap, which entails a group of SBP students visiting a school and engaging in activities with their students, and then students from the other school coming to SBP to do the same.

Our one-day exchange occurred earlier this week. At about 6:45 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 18, about 18 students  boarded a bus in Newark and traveled to Noor ul-Iman School in Monmouth Junction. Home to nearly 500 K-12 students, the school is known for its competitive academics and strong religious/spiritual formation program. The entire senior class at NUI took the day off to welcome us and engage in a variety of activities with us.

As part of a St. Benedict’s tradition to reach out and welcome people of other faiths, SBP’s Dr. Glenn Cassidy (left) and Mr. Stephen Adubato (right) joined Mrs. Tammy El-Mansoori, an administrator, at her school for a day of exchange.

I was amazed by the warm hospitality with which they welcomed us. The room we assembled in was beautifully decorated with festive lights, colorful flowers, and golden lanterns, along with a delicious breakfast spread consisting of frittatas, potatoes, bread pudding, fruit, croissants, and coffee. Before anyone could dig in, we had the privilege of getting to hear one of the seniors, a hafez (person who has memorized the entire Qur’an) chant passages from Suras 3 and 19 about the birth and life of Jesus, who is viewed as a prophet by Muslims. Then we ate!  After, we played a series of icebreaker games. The students then dove into discussions about topics ranging from their favorite movies, what they wanted to study in the future, their family life, and their religious experiences. It was heartening to watch a group of young people open up to each other on such an intimate level within the first two hours of meeting each other.

After the discussion, a group of female students gave a presentation about misconceptions about the rights of women in Islam. Another group of students spoke with the aim of dispelling false stereotypes about Muslims. It was clear that the students were not only well-versed in the teachings of their faith, but that they also took their beliefs to heart.

Part of being a religious minority in this country means that you have to stand strong in your faith and be able to articulate what you believe clearly. You never know when someone will approach you with a question, or worse–with hostility. The students and teachers all expressed the imperative to respond to ignorance with patience rather than anger, looking for opportunities to educate those who don’t understand their religion.

Afterwards, a group of male students sang a series of Qasidas, songs composed in the 13th century in praise of the prophet Muhammad. The melody was strikingly beautiful, and the devotion with which they sang was disarming, as were the lyrics of the songs. Though they came from a religious tradition different from my own, I found that the way they expressed their desire for the Infinite resonated with my heart: “O You of infinite largesse, gather us together…quench our thirst, o Lord, and give us succour by a lifegiving downpour of rain.” 

I found that same longing for God expressed during their jummah (midday, communal) prayer service. Led by Dr. Ahmed Mohamed, the school’s visiting Islamic scholar, all of the students went through the ritual motions and gestures that are part of the second prescribed prayer of the day. I was struck by the emphasis on unity in the masjid (prayer space)–the students stood in even lines along the carpet facing qibla (the direction of Mecca), standing and kneeling in unison, giving praise and glory to the Almighty. 

After prayer, I had the opportunity to talk more with Dr. Mohamed, who before studying the Islamic Sciences (Qur’an, history, theology, jurisprudence), earned his doctoral degree in biology. “I just love learning,” he remarked. “I can’t stop reading books and learning about life!” He explained how his desire to understand God through the Islamic sciences and His creation through the natural sciences are united by the same desire for meaning and truth.

I understand that my beliefs as a Christian are different from those of my new Muslim friends. I believe God is a Trinity, whereas they believe God is perfect unity without any parts. I believe Jesus is God in the flesh, while they believe he is a prophet and that God transcends human nature.

Still, I knew I felt so connected to the teachers and students at this wonderful school.  What made me feel so united to the students and teachers at NUI was our shared desire for truth, meaning, and beauty. It’s this desire that impels us to delve further into our pursuit of knowledge through education, and to pursue our respective religious quests.

 This desire, I believe, provides a “light for future generations,” as the NUI school motto says. As the world continues secularizing, the more readily available allures of pragmatism and moral relativism may seem promising at first. But they inevitably lead to an existential ambiguity that risk slipping into the darkness of nihilism, in which we are left alone to face our need for meaning, our emptiness, and insecurities in isolation. 

 I saw that light of hope in the faces of the students, who were courageous enough to step out on that mysterious journey toward each other, and toward the Ultimate Other who is powerful enough to embrace and redeem our human limitations. I was convinced of this glint of hope as I watched the students engage in real, meaningful and honest discussions with each other, and when I saw them offer each other heartfelt goodbyes, awaiting their next visit with each other in the weeks to come. Who could be responsible for such an exceptional experience of unity, for allowing people from different walks of life to share their humanity with each other in such an intimate way?

As I left, Mrs. Tammy gave me a bag of books about Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. I thought back to that accidental encounter six months ago, marveling at how it could possibly have led to such an  unexpected and exceptional series of events. I found myself saying the phrase I heard the teachers and students repeating throughout the day: “Alhamdulillah,” “praise be to God”…praise be to that mysterious Being who loved us enough to incarnate His beauty through this encounter. I got onto the bus with gratitude, hoping to see the fruits of this encounter throughout the days to come, “inshallah,” God willing.

Mr. Adubato is a religion teacher at St. Benedict’s and directs the Gray Bee Ministry.

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