This past May, along with 16 other Mississippians, I participated in a 10-day tour of Turkey at the invitation of the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue, an organization composed primarily of Muslims, Christians and Jews to foster reconciliation and peace throughout the world.
The trip was short on the tourist end of things and focused more on interacting with the people of Turkey. For example, in Konya, we made a quick run through the Whirling Dervish training compound and the mystic Rumi's tomb.
In the evening, our group of 16 would divide into three smaller groups to visit family homes for dinner and conversation. This experience proved to be one of the most important aspects of the trip. At the dinners we interacted with a variety of Turkish people. A pattern to our conversations quickly emerged. After small talk and getting settled in, our hosts often asked us why we wanted to come to Turkey. My typical response was that in the post-September 11 world, I believed it crucial that the global community be in dialogue to promote reconciliation and to prevent future conflicts and catastrophes. The time for optional dialogue is past—we must be engaged as a world people.
I asked each host family what they most wanted the people of the United States to know about them. Their responses also became routine. First, that Islam is not a religion of war. Second, although many Turkish people disagree with the United States' foreign policy, they wish to be friends with the American people. Third, Turkish people desire peace.
I was surprised that of all the host families we had dinner with, only one individual had traveled outside of Turkey. When discussing the possibility of reciprocal visits to the United States, I learned of the difficulty for Turkish people to obtain visas to travel since the 9/11 tragedy.
Two days in and around the coastal city of Izmir provided my most profound experiences. We arrived for dinner the first evening at the Sifa Medical Center where we ate a meal and saw a program on Turkish health care. During the visit I met Mustafa Onay, his wife, Muzaffer, and their two daughters, Hale and Hatice. Though Mustafa speaks little English, he proclaimed us to be brothers after he realized we were the same age.
Hale had taken some English courses and served as the primary translator. I asked the Onays many of the same questions and got many of the same answers as at other dinners. With some resignation, Mustafa fears that, post 9/11, it may be too late for dialogue, as much as it is needed. After a couple of hours, we embraced, took photos, exchanged e-mails and left for our hotel.
The next day proved my most memorable of the trip. On our way to visit the Roman city of Ephesus, I was thrilled when the bus pulled to the curb in a residential area to pick up the Onay family. We started our conversation where we left off the previous night. Hale brought along her 800-page Turkish-English dictionary.
Our first stop that Sunday was to the house where Mary, the mother of Jesus, was supposed to have gone to live out her final days. The place was sacred regardless of the legitimacy of the claim. I lit a candle in Mary's house for my granddaughter with leukemia. I wiped my face with water from the spring.
The house was quite small. If you wished to pray or stay for more than a quick pass through, you moved to the left upon entering. Hatice entered in front of me and moved to the left, as did I. She held her hands outstretched as her lips moved in prayer. I came to appreciate like never before the common root of our religions. We are of Abraham before we are Muslims, Christians or Jews. I now deeply understand that for most people, whether one is a Christian, Muslim or Jew is more a consequent of where one is born as opposed to theological choices.
We walked to a market area nearby, and I bought a Qu'ran. Hatice and her mother showed me how the Qu'ran is read from back to front. Hatice, after paging through the text, gently closed the book, kissed the cover, brought the book to her forehead, then handed the Qu'ran to me. I was humbled by her reverence and faith.
Earlier, while visiting the Cave of Abraham, a young Turkish man walked by, looked me directly in the eye and said: "This is a democracy. I can say what I want. I do not like your President Bush. But I like the American people. Enjoy your visit to Turkey."
My knee-jerk reaction was to respond that I voted for the other guy … but I realized that is not the point. I know that as a Christian and citizen of the United States, I have a responsibility not to simply relinquish the future to the hands of our elected officials. It becomes too easy, too comfortable, to fall into a complacency where voting alone absolves one of responsibility until the next election. I also have a responsibility to be active, to reach out, to speak the truth, to be in community with the world.
Now, when the subject of Islam, the war or head scarves are discussed, they are less abstract notions to me. I see the faces of Memhet, Mustafa, Muzaffer, Hatice, Hale, Serdahl, Suphon, Sabri—friends from this Muslim country, who welcomed us into their homes, schools, hospitals.
My general experiences in Turkey, and specifically with the Onay family, confirmed to me that we are not different cogs in the wheel but an interconnected web of a humanity. We share so much more than what separates us. I am struck, like never before, of the strength, promise, and potential in a unified focus of the Abrahamic and all faiths as a force for unity and peace.
Robert P. Connolly, Ph.D. is Cathedral Administrator of St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson. E-mail him at [e-mail missing]
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This is a touching and enlightening article. Regardless of how we try to classify ourselves, we are all God's children.
Robert's a good guy, and I'm thoroughly impressed with this article. Nicely done, sir!
- Tom Head