We walked down the dimly lit street in East Village as the glowing hot dog came into view above our heads. Down the steps into Crif Dogs we nonchalantly sought the mysterious phone booth. The wood stained box called almost no attention to itself. Tucked behind one edge of the wall, like all things worth finding, we never would have noticed it if we hadn’t been looking.
Once inside the booth, directions called for us to pick up the vintage red phone and dial. On the other side of the wall a woman answered. Suddenly the wall-turned-door on my left retreated into blackness and revealed a prohibition-era speakeasy from a decade past.
An Asian woman with sleek black hair tied into a bun, nodded for us to enter and led us to our seats in the shotgun room. Taxidermied animals stared down at us from their permanently-plastered positions on the walls and the sounds of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra washed over the glossy black tables.
We ordered hot dogs and in the meantime dove into conversation.
This was our first night out after two days of discussion and training at the Interfaith Leadership Institute and despite the fact we had been talking about interfaith engagement all day, we weren’t about to stop now.
On our walk there that night we passed a group of monks cloaked in red robes, smiling beneath shaved heads. A block away a group of Jewish men worked in a theater, dressed in standard employee uniforms with the singular addition of a yamaka. New York City was proving to be a small slice of a larger pie.
The day before, Eboo Patel, founder of IFYC, spoke to the conference about working with people of differing faiths. One of the things that makes our country great is the diversity, the multiculturalism and the vast difference of perspectives, Patel said. And when we talk about interfaith relations we’re not asking anyone to ignore that.
“There are really deep differences,” Patel admitted and went on to tell this story…
A group of Muslims, companions of the prophet Muhammad, were fleeing religious persecution and came to the palace of the Christian King Negus of Abyssinia. The King heard they were accused of rebelling against the true religion and asked them to explain themselves. The Muslims read from the Quran the story of the virgin Mary. The words brought the king and his advisers to tears and when they finished he picked up a stick and drew a line in the sand before him.
“The difference between your religion and mine is no bigger than this line,” he said. And offered them protection from persecution.
“They were leading with pluralism,” Patel excitedly told us. And that is what he was asking us to do, to lead with the commonalities of our religions. To gather around those things on which we can agree, on the values that matter to us like service, compassion, and hospitality and work up to discussing the others.
The waiter sidled up to the table with our food, pulling us back into the 1920s speakeasy.
“Would you be comfortable saying a prayer?” Amanda asked me after the food was placed.
I nodded. And as a Catholic and Protestant we bowed our heads in the yellow glow of the bar, beneath the beedy eyes of the animals on the wall, surrounded by people from all walks of life, we prayed together. Joined by our commonality.
Interfaith cooperation isn’t easy, if it was everyone would be doing it. Like anything worth finding, you have to first be looking.