A Rabbi, a Priest, and an Imam: A Report from the Yale Building Hope Conference

Today we'd like to share with you an article written by Richard McCallum about the recent Building Hope Conference at Yale. 

A rabbi, a priest and an imam were sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and smoking shisha.... The beginning of a politically incorrect joke? No. One of my favourite moments from the Building Hope Conference in July 2011. The nine-day event – yes, nine days – brought together over two dozen mid-career religious leaders – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – to discuss issues of common concern. But this was not just another dialogue jamboree looking for the lowest common denominator amongst liberals who hold that all religions essentially share the same ultimate values of truth and harmony, inevitably leading to the same destination. No. This was a meeting of the passionate, the committed; the coming together of those who might be labelled ‘progressive conservatives’.  

The invitation-only event was hosted by Joseph Cumming and the Reconciliation Program at the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture in New Haven, Connecticut and brought together participants from around the world. The centre has been engaged in the controversial initiative A Common Word between Us and You and in a sense this event was a continuation of that initiative, bringing it closer to the grassroots of the respective faith communities. The idea was to draw together not the usual suspects from amongst the establishment hierarchies but younger leaders who have the influence and potential to shape the future. And on the agenda were not so much the things that unite as the things that divide, some of the most sensitive and explosive issues of our time: religious violence, freedom of conscience, proselytism and Israel-Palestine.  

And that was why the conference was so long. Most conferences end after three days, but we were only just beginning! Part of the unique nature of this encounter was that it forced us to move beyond polite conversation and to engage in deeper relationship and honest debate. 

The first three days were taken up with presenting our understanding of our faith to one another. Not so easy as it became clear that even within the same faith community there were representatives of different traditions: Orthodox and Reform, Catholic and Protestant, Salafi and Sufi. Certainly we all learned a lot, and it was fascinating to hear imams, rabbis and clergy discussing amongst themselves. No punches were pulled, so Q&A times were not always easy to chair! At times there was real tension: ‘Christians are not monotheists;’ ‘Islam is intolerant;’ ‘Jews are violent.’ However, we agreed that such contentious claims would be held off until later in the conference when time was allotted for a full debate. This was crucial, as it gave time to get to know one another before entering heated argument. So shared meals (featuring halal and glatt kosher food!), a boat cruise, time at the cafe and a trip to New York all played an important role in creating a secure context for discussion.

So too did visiting one another’s places of worship. Again, this was not an exercise in multifaith worship. Attendance did not require participation. No one pretended that all worship is the same. However, there was real value in sharing and explaining our practice. Observers were often moved by the passion of participants and in many ways this was maybe one of the lasting highlights for many involved.

So what about those contentious issues? Did we find the answers and resolve them all? Alas, no. In the final count, nine days was still too short. But it was a start. Of course we still disagreed on many things, but disagreeing with a newfound friend is very different than disagreeing with a stranger. We listened, and we understood better: expanding Israeli settler families need space for their children; not all Evangelical Christians support western foreign policy; many Muslims affirm that there should be freedom to leave Islam; we are all embarrassed by the violence and extremism of some of our co-religionists.

The goal was not to merge our understandings of truth into one insipid, anonymous compromise that would inspire no one. Rather it was to begin a conversation that would point the way to how committed followers of the different faiths can live together and make the world a safer, more just place. To that end the relationships forged at Yale do indeed ‘build hope.’ Hope that, instead of stereotyping and presuming on our own interpretations, we may actually pick up the phone and discuss with those we trust; hope that when controversy arises, our first port of call will not be the media or our own populist pulpits, but an email to a friend who may be able to shed light on the latest crisis. This is surely the only way forward in our plural and increasingly religious societies.

In a small way, this has begun. At Yale I not only acquired knowledge but gained friends. We are still in touch – as much as our busy schedules allow. We have already discussed a controversial book published by an extremist leader, and there are plans to discuss another book together. The proof of whether this sort of robust dialogue has lasting value will be whether our friendships persist. Will we still be in touch a year from now? I hope that we will be. I’d love to meet again; I have more questions to ask and I want to sit in the cafe again with a rabbi, a priest and an imam.