By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
07 August, 2014
The centre where I work—an institute for interfaith understanding—organizes a special interfaith get-together three times a year: on the Eid that follows the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan, on the Hindu festival of Diwali and on Christmas Eve. A hundred-odd people, from different faiths, gather together, and, after listening to a couple of short speeches, perhaps a song or two and a prayer, they get down to a lavish meal.
“Why this terrible waste of money?” I used to ask myself. “Why not use that money to help the poor instead?”
I kept these feelings to myself, though. I wasn’t sure how my colleagues would react. They might think I was plotting to spoil their fun!
But following our annual Eid party this year, held just the other day, it struck me what a wonderful idea this ‘interfaith meal’ actually is. Of course, I still think that we should cut down on the lavishness of it—maybe we should have just Daal and rice and a Subzi, and a sweet perhaps—but I realise that the meal itself is a beautiful way for people of diverse faith backgrounds to be able to bond together. It’s probably worth much more in terms of practical inter-community harmony than hours of theological discoursing on the subject or numerous voluminous tomes on dialogue.
For some of the people who participate in our interfaith meals, it is perhaps the first time for them to participate in a social event with people of other faiths and to celebrate it by eating together. They may have had only minimal social contact with others prior to this—while travelling in a bus perhaps, or while buying things in a shop or drinking tea in a restaurant. That maybe the extent of the interaction they have had with people of other faiths. Some may not make much conversation with others while they eat, but, even then, the very fact that they sit and eat with them is itself a bold step towards dissolving the boundaries that divide various faith communities. For others, the meal might provide an occasion to socially interact with people from other backgrounds, which might even lead to close friendships.
If a short shared meal has such wonderful potential to help lower barriers between communities, at least temporarily, imagine what wonders an interfaith day-long picnic or, better still, an interfaith vacation for a couple of days—to the beach or on a trek up into the mountains, for instance—can work! Travelling, eating, chatting and joking with each other, and even sleeping together in shared rooms or under the stars, in just a few days, I bet, the entire bunch of people from diverse faith backgrounds would become good friends! Simply by living together for a short period of time, they would recognize how very similar they actually are—as fellow humans—despite their religious differences. They would have shed many of their prejudices about each other’s faiths and communities without having to listen to preachy sermons about harmony and dialogue.
If a major purpose of interfaith dialogue is to promote harmony and peaceful coexistence between people of different faith backgrounds, I can hardly think of a more effective, and, at the same time, more fun, way than an interfaith vacation!
If you plan to organize one, do let me know. I’d love to join!