Journey to the Tent of Abraham: The First Step

This month we continued our recognition of the three-year confluence of holy days in the Jewish and Islamic calendars (whereby the Jewish month of Tishrei [the time of Judaism’s High Holy Days] coincides with the Islamic month of Ramadan) and in the calendars of Christians, Hindus and Bahá΄ís. WTB decided to celebrate this unusual event, which will not occur again for another 30 years, by inviting the entire community to join us in visiting seven religious sites and learning about our common spirituality. We called our walk the “Journey to the Tent of Abraham” because Abraham, the Patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, welcomed travelers from all lands, symbolized by his tent being open on all four sides. Today we used that image to welcome not only the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but all other religions as well.

Invitation to the Journey to the Tent of Abraham
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To download an illustrated .pdf report, click here

University United Methodist Church

We began our interfaith journey at UUMC, where we were welcomed by its pastor, Rev. Marilyn Wolfe. Rev. Wolfe recounted the history of this beautiful, English Gothic church. The original church located on this site was begun in 1871, on the same day as was Syracuse University’s Hall of Languages. A 1914 fire destroyed the entire church with the exception of the pulpit, which was saved and is still being used today. The current building was not begun until 1919. In the intervening years, the congregation of Temple Society of Concord, a block away, invited the Methodists to use their synagogue for Sunday worship. UUMC remains committed to interfaith work and to “one God, one humanity.” Rev. Wolfe pointed out the symbols that remind her congregants of the lifelong need for grace: the table where they are fed, the font as a source of life-giving water, the pulpit from which they hear the word of God, and the cross that is their representation of God. She stressed that the table is open, and all are welcome he

Rev. Wolfe reviewed the story of Abraham as told in the Torah, the Old Testament, and the Qur΄an. God told Abram and Sarai that He would take them to a new place. They had to leave what was comfortable and familiar. God expected them to act by faith, to set out without plan or means, open to transformation, not knowing but going anyway. So, too, many of us today are setting out for new places, open to transformation.

Nathan Summerall played the hymn, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” on the church organ, showing the full, magnificent power of this wonderful instrument that filled the nave with uplifting sound.

Rev. Wolfe ended with a blessing to send us on our own journeys. She prayed that God would “hold me and let me go.” She reminded us that in the past we have allowed our differences to divide us, but today we should use them to raise our spirits and our expectations so that we walk, talk and work for peace.

Grace Episcopal Church

We continued on to our second stop, where Hester Osgood explained that next Saturday, October 27, Grace Episcopal Church will celebrate 50 years of racial integration. In 1957 the black parish of St. Philips was closed, and the parishioners joined the white church of Grace, thus forming the first integrated Episcopal church east of the Mississippi. Hester gave a first-hand account of the church’s desecration in 1959 and of bomb threats in the 1960s. The parishioners would not be intimidated; they remained at the forefront of the civil rights movement, announcing that “race is for athletes.” They opened the first food pantry in Syracuse and are still involved in community betterment. Everyone is invited to attend next Saturday’s celebration from noon to 4 pm.

Peter Williams explained the Episcopal service and some of the traditions of the Episcopal church. Then Sabrina Coleman explained their programs of worship, education, and community service. Jim Steele drew our attention to the modern stained-glass window that replaced an older one destroyed by the 1998 Labor Day storm. The new window commemorates David Oakerhater, a Cheyenne Indian (1847–1931) who became a Christian minister and briefly a member of this church.

Temple Society of Concord

Jonathan and Aveeya Dinkin led us in a lilting call-and-response song. Then Rabbi Sheldon Ezring spoke, explaining the history and philosophy of this congregation. He said that God created all of us; and that if there is more than one religion, then God must have wanted it to be so; and that therefore there is more than one path we can follow. Temple Society of Concord is the ninth-oldest synagogue still in existence in the United States. It was founded in 1839 and is in the Reform tradition: head covers for men and women are optional, the temple has an organ, men and women sit together, and most of the service is in English. Their prayer book is universal, with only about ten percent being specifically Jewish. Rabbi Ezring considers the concept of being “chosen” a dangerous one because it is divisive. The congregation is always open to people of other traditions, as exemplified by their welcoming the congregants of University United Methodist Church to worship at Temple Society of Concord for several years until UUMC’s building could be reconstructed after a fire. Rabbi Ezring concluded by chanting in Hebrew from the story of Abram. He invited everyone to come up to the bimah (pulpit) before leaving, to see and touch the Torah. The Torah is a scroll, hand lettered on parchment (a process that takes a year), containing the Five Books of Moses. He then asked Elana Levy to speak to us about Judaism’s mystic tradition, called Kabbalah.

Elana first drew our attention to her prayer shawl, called a tallit, which has long fringes interwoven with a blue thread and is traditionally worn only by men. Elana explained to us that Kabbalah originated in Europe. Its major text, the Zohar, was written in 1280 ce; it is a deep commentary on Torah. Our connection to the Divine is a major theme of Kabbalah, which holds that the Divine is present in all things and that therefore we are all one. The central prayer of all Judaism (not just of Kabbalah) is the Sh΄ma. This prayer is difficult to translate into English because there are no exact equivalents, but Elana did her best to convey its spirit. She noted that Rabbi Arthur Waskow translates the word Israel as “God wrestlers,” meaning persons wrestling with the idea of the Divine. That translation applies in this translation of the Sh΄ma: “Listen, Israel. The Eternal One, our God, is One.”

Winnick Hillel Center for Jewish Life

 Here we were welcomed by a joyous gathering of Jewish students: a klezmer band playing on the patio, and the Oy Cappella Chorus singing inside. Both were a delight to listen to, as we munched on kosher foods that included fruits, dips and desserts from an overflowing table. Lowell Lustig explained that this facility is the largest college Jewish center in the United States, and he invited us to mingle, ask questions, see the chapel, and take a tour of the center.

Alibrandi Catholic Center

 At the next stop along our journey, we were greeted by Father John Ruffo and treated to the sounds of Gregorian chants and the aroma of burning incense. Suzanne Beaupre offered to answer any questions that arose as we wandered through the chapel and meeting rooms.

Islamic Society of Central New York

 Gathered in the upstairs Women’s Prayer Room, we listened to Cjala Surrat, the youth director, and Sarah Sahraoui, who teaches in the children’s program, explain the Ramadan fast. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for 40 days, preceding each day’s fast with a generous before-dawn breakfast and ending it with a substantial after-dusk dinner. No, they do not fast round-the-clock for 40 days! There is a joke that no one loses weight during these fasts because they eat so well at their break-fast celebrations! Cjala and Sarah also explained the five Pillars of Islam, the term given to the five duties incumbent upon every Muslim: shahada (profession of faith), salah (ritual prayer), zakah (alms tax), sawm (fasting during Ramadan), and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

Hendricks Chapel

As we crossed the Syracuse University quad and approached Hendricks Chapel, we were greeted by a “Tent of Abraham” that was open on all four sides to welcome us. We walked through the tent before climbing the building’s grand outdoor staircase. Because participants had been interested in each location and the programs presented there, not everyone arrived at Hendricks, the final stop on our journey, at the same time. Not to worry! As the earlier arrivals awaited the stragglers, they partook from extensive tables of goodies: cheese and crackers, fruits, desserts, and a buffet of Indian treats (including samosa, gulab jamun, and halva), cheerfully explained by three young women in jewel-toned shalwar kameez (embroidered tunic and pants). When most journeyers seemed to have arrived, we were seated in the chapel to bring a close to our afternoon.

Ann Eppinger Port, WTB president, welcomed everyone. She summarized the history of WTB, shared our vision statement, and explained the extensive planning that went into this day. She expressed our thanks and gratitude to the following people and organizations for their enthusiastic support and encouragement: Dr. Nancy Cantor, president and chancellor of Syracuse University; the Syracuse University Department of Religion, and its chairperson Dr. Tazim Kassam; Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel, and its dean, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Wolfe; InterFaith Works of Central New York, and its executive director Dr. James Wiggins; the clergy, staff and volunteers from all the sites we visited during today’s walk; the many other volunteers who worked on this event, giving generously of their skills and their time; Danya Wellmon, our tireless chairperson who kept track of everything and kept everyone on track; and all the people who participated in today’s journey.

Ann then introduced Dr. Thomas Wolfe, dean of Hendricks Chapel, who welcomed us. Dr. Wolfe recounted the history of the chapel, which is located in the geographic center of the Syracuse University campus. The chapel was designed in the 1920s, at a time when Protestant Christianity was dominant. Its founder and the architects, however, avoided traditional faith markers and instead modeled the building on the Pantheon, where all gods were worshiped. The three New Testament quotations that encircle the room reflect universal themes and echo the wisdom of other religions. Because of this restraint, the building is a comfortable home for 19 different religious groups and ten chaplaincies; it has had a Muslim prayer room for the past 30 years.

Dr. Wolfe pointed out that today we have been the recipients of hospitality from various religions. When we open up to receive each other, we realize that so much more is possible. He asked us to pay attention carefully to today’s final blessings—listening for familiar as well as unfamiliar words and cadences, being aware of and feeling our own comfort and discomfort—and to learn from our perceptions and emotions.

The Final Blessings

Rev. Beth DuBois is the pastor of South Presbyterian Church and Onondaga Valley Presbyterian Church in Syracuse’s Valley neighborhood. These congregations work with Atonement Lutheran Church and share a seminary intern. These Valley churches are part of a well-established ecumenical group of Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics and others that cosponsor a food pantry and have shared services and educational programs. Rev. DuBois also serves as the minister of nurture at University United Methodist Church and is co-moderator of the Community Wide Dialogue to End Racism, a project of InterFaith Works of Central New York. She completed six months as part of the transitional ministry team at Plymouth Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) and taught at the School of Christian Living, an ecumenical ministry begun at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.

Rev. DuBois shared a prayer she learned recently at a Presbyterian youth convention of 6000 teens. The prayer comes from Argentina and Scotland. She sang it for us and asked us to join in:

The peace of the earth be with you,
The peace of the heavens too,
The Peace of the rivers be with you,
The peace of the oceans too,
Peace, peace falling over you,
God’s peace growing in you.

Elana Levy, who had spoken to us at Temple Society of Concord, gave a priestly benediction from the Book of Numbers. This prayer was found on a 700 bce amulet, making it the earliest-discovered biblical inscription. Elana read it in Hebrew, then in English:

May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God’s head be turned in your direction with tenderness
And grant you peace.

Sarah Sahraoui, whom we had met at the Islamic Society, read in Arabic, then in English, the passage that begins any formal gathering:

All praise is due to God. We thank him, seek his guidance and to him we repent. We ask him to forgive us from the evil of ourselves and shortcomings of our deeds. Guidance is from Allah alone, whomsoever Allah guides is rightly guided, and whomsoever Allah leaves to stray, for him you will find no protectors to lead him the right way. And we witness that there are no other gods but Allah, and that Muhammad is his Prophet and Messenger. May Allah’s prayers be upon him and all the Prophets and Messengers from Adam to Noah and Abraham, Moses and Jesus. May God’s peace and blessings be upon them all. Allah said in His Holy book, “O you who believe, fear Allah and always speak righteously and objectively, that he may improve and correct your actions and deeds and forgive your sins.” He also said, “O mankind, reverence your Guardian Lord, who created you from a single soul (Adam) and created of it its mate (Eve) and from them twin countless men and women. Fear Allah, through whom you demand your mutual rights and reverence the wombs that bore you, for Allah ever watches over you.

 Smita Rane introduced her mother, Pushpa Bhise, who is visiting from India. Pushpa chanted the Gâyatrî Mantra (a prayer of praise) and sang a Sanskrit prayer, while Luana Ramcharran, Gabriela Krawiec and Edaterina Mozhaeva from the Syracuse University Hindu Council performed a bharata natyam dance illustrating the prayer’s meaning.

In closing, Dr. Wolfe, Rev. DuBois, Elana, Sarah, and Smita read in unison: “We offer these blessings from our own traditions in order to convey our hope that the diverse people of faith, who share this earth home, may live in respect and chosen mutuality. That these blessings, spoken distinctly, side-by-side, will lead to acts of empathy, compassion, solidarity and justice. And, while we affirm our distinctions, it does not mean we are separated. We celebrate the capacity of each of our traditions to bring about meaningful relationships. This is where peace begins. This is the hope we bear this day.