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nervous about your muslim neighbors? then invite them over for dinner

by Kelsey Dalles, reprinted from desert news

MILLCREEK — Moments before an interfaith gathering between Mormons and Muslims was slated to begin on the evening of June 4, volunteers were still setting up tables in a warm, noisy gymnasium, spurred into action by a crowd that was more than twice as big as expected.

Kristen Hodges, the event's co-host, was nervous but thrilled, ready to take part in an event she'd spent months planning.

Dozens of people attend the "Meet the Muslims" event at the Utah Islamic Center in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. After the prayer, a brief presentation on Islam was given, followed by a question-and-answer session hosted by a panel of Muslims, including Imam Shuaib Din, center. | Tanner Siegworth, Deseret News

"Since the election, I've been trying to work on projects that build community instead of tearing it down," she said.

Thirty minutes later, the tables were filled with people: Mormon parents making sure their young children didn't eat too many chocolate-covered strawberries and Muslim women in brightly colored headscarves. Members of both religions had fasted that day — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fast one Sunday a month and Muslims refrain from eating and drinking while the sun is up each day of Ramadan, a holy month that spans from sunset on May 26 to sunset on June 24 this year.

This meal that broke the fasts, called an iftar, was meant to spark new connections between the two faith groups. Hodges recruited Mormon friends and fellow ward members to attend, while her co-host, Amina Dinki, spread the word in the Muslim community.

"She brought up the idea, and I wanted to help," Dinki said. "I wanted to bring the Muslim side so we could all come together."

Interfaith iftars are relatively common during Ramadan, as Muslims embrace opportunities to meet with people who are curious or concerned about their religion. Research has shown that even a brief interaction between members of different faiths can improve the way members feel about each other.

For example, two-thirds of U.S. adults who at least occasionally had a conversation with a Muslim over the last year said that Muslims are an important part of the American religious community, compared to 45 percent of adults who never interacted with a member of this faith group, according to a recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute.

 

 

Public Religion Research Institute | Aaron Thorup, Public Religion Research Institute

 

 

"All we really need is a brief conversation with someone — for them to listen and hear what we have to say about our religion, how we practice our faith and understand it, how we live day to day — for them to get that we're not the hostiles they see on television," said Maha Elgenaidi, founder and executive director of the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, California.

Elgenaidi's organization launched a "Know Your Neighbor" campaign this summer in response to this conclusion, encouraging Muslims and other people of faith to strengthen their community by sharing their stories. The national campaign is part of a growing number of events aimed at increasing face-to-face interactions between potential enemies, many of which are anchored by a shared meal.

"We're seeing a trend toward people wanting to do community again," said the Rev. Jennifer Bailey, one of the leaders of The People's Supper, an online organization that facilitates diverse dinner gatherings across the country.

A congregation of Mormons joined with a congregation of Muslims in the Salt Lake area joined together on Sunday to break the fast. | Provided by Kristen Hodges

  

A shared meal is a simple concept that's also a meaningful step toward new friendships, according to the Rev. Bailey and others. However, interfaith iftars and other events only work if the right mix of people agrees to participate.

"Liberals love us," the Rev. Bailey said. "One of our biggest challenges has been creating spaces that feel safe enough for others."

Value of shared meals

Political and religious divides in the U.S. have deepened in recent years. Partisan news sites and social media filters have allowed people to see the world as they want to see it, adding fuel to long-simmering suspicion and anger toward people on the other side of an issue.

In April 2016, 58 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats had a "very unfavorable" view of the other political party, according to the Pew Research Center. Among both sets of respondents, partisan dislike jumped more than 35 percentage points from 1994 to 2016.

 

 

Pew Research Center, 2014| Aaron Thorup, Pew Research Center, 2014

 

 

"We're like a married couple that is totally done with each other. … The husband's moved out and they've filed papers," said Jacob Hess, a partner with Living Room Conversations, a Utah-based group that encourages dialogue across lines of difference.

Dinner parties with diverse participants are a potential antidote to this anger. They tempt people out of their comfort zone with good food and conversation starters, the Rev. Bailey said.

"Over the dinner table, we find connection and community. We share secrets," she said. "It's a common experience that everyone can enjoy or, at the very least, understand."

Walking through her ward's gymnasium on that night in early June, catching snippets of conversation about school activities and family members, Hodges was amazed by how quickly barriers between people had broken down.

"I saw people sitting at tables with people who were new to them," she said. They asked and answered questions about religion and chatted about dessert options.

Throughout history, shared meals have been a way to solidify new alliances or friendships, so it's no surprise that they're a popular remedy for current tensions, said Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.

"Eating together has long been really important to creating trust," she said, noting that, at the very least, participants accept that their host isn't trying to poison them.

For many people of faith, a shared meal also has religious significance, the Rev. Bailey noted. Communion, or the taking of bread and wine together, is a sacrament in most Christian traditions.

"My personal investment in this project is rooted in the sacredness of sharing a meal. (In the Bible) we see Jesus doing his ministry most often at the dinner table," she said.

Most of The People's Supper's events are potlucks, and attendees are encouraged to bring dishes that say something about their upbringing or beliefs. A vegan might provide a dairy-free dessert, while a Muslim brings a dish of halal meat to share.

People "participate in the space by bringing food from their own tradition," the Rev. Bailey said.

In this way, food becomes an opening into a conversation about interests and hobbies. Homes can serve the same purpose, Clayton said.

Our homes "are a form of self-expression," she said, noting that people decorate them with favorite colors or souvenirs from family vacations.

An LDS Church ward building is different than a house, but it's still a spiritual home. Muslim attendees at the interfaith iftar were able to tour it and ask questions, and they said prayers in the women's Relief Society room.

 

 

Dozens of people attend the "Meet the Muslims" event at the Utah Islamic Center in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. After the prayer, a brief presentation on Islam was given, followed by a question-and-answer session hosted by a panel of Muslims, including Imam Shuaib Din. | Tanner Siegworth, Deseret News

  

"I wanted to open our home to them," Hodges said.

By inviting little-known neighbors or even strangers over for dinner, people signal a willingness to let themselves be known in new ways, Clayton said.

"If I find out our kids go to the same school, if I find out I have something in common with you, I'm going to feel more comfortable," she said.

Roadblocks to dialogue

Hess, the Rev. Bailey and others who organize diverse gatherings believe in the power of a shared meal. They've seen what Clayton described happen in real time, watching people relax when they find out something new about their dinner companions.

"I've seen people from literally different parts of the globe deeply identifying with one another," the Rev. Bailey said.

The problem is getting the right mix of people there in the first place. Her organization, as well as Living Room Conversations and other event planners, has struggled to bring religious and political conservatives to the table.

More conservative people fear being "labeled as racist or bigoted and attacked because of their beliefs," the Rev. Bailey said.

They may also be turned off by the language people use to describe these events, like "dialogue" or "safe space," said Hess, who co-authored the book, "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought: Conversations Between a Die-hard Liberal and a Devoted Conservative."

"There are many conservatives who are concerned about polarization and demonization and want to do something about it. But it's also true that dialogue has often felt liberal. It's felt like part of the diversity agenda," he said. "There are code words that have pushed some conservatives away."

The Rev. Bailey and other leaders of The People's Supper have chosen to avoid the term "safe space" for this reason, referring to the context of their events as "brave spaces" instead.

Potential participants who are more conservative may also worry about the goal of interfaith or bipartisan events, Hess said. Many people think they'll be encouraged to move to a "mushy, middle ground" ideology that embraces a variety of perspectives.

"I've had wonderful experiences being heard in my deepest convictions, but some people don't see it that way. They see (dialogue) as a way to potentially convert them," he said.

In describing his work to others, Hess emphasizes the value of simply listening to some else's story with no expectations. The goal is to learn as much as to teach.

"All dialogue asks is that you prioritize seeking understanding of a view that is different than yours," he said.

Bringing people together

The People's Supper, Living Room Conversations and other organizations increase interest among more-hesitant participants by issuing personal invitations. Everyone has an uncle or co-worker who sees the world completely differently than they do, Elgenaidi said.

"People who are already coming, the early adopters, can become the intermediaries and ambassadors, reaching out to other members of their community and members of their own family," she said.

If attending a diverse dinner party is too much of a leap for someone, you can try starting with regular but brief conversations, Hess said.

"Just pick one person on the other side of an issue you care about, whether it's religious or political, and talk to that one person," he said.

In this process, it's important to let go of old assumptions about what a person's political party or religious affiliation says about them, the Rev. Bailey said.

"Don't tokenize," the Rev. Bailey said. "Don't make blanket assumptions about people's lives or why they vote the way they vote."

She added, "It sounds so trivial, but you should treat people like you want to be treated."

 

 

A congregation of Mormons joined with a congregation of Muslims in the Salt Lake area joined together on Sunday to break the fast. | Provided by Kristen Hodges 

 

Once you have a successful conversation or shared meal under your belt, this approach to relationship building can become addictive. Both Hodges and Dinki said they can't wait for more interfaith gatherings between Muslims and Mormons.

"My social circle is largely Mormon and white. Part of wanting to build community is wanting to give myself the gift of access to new people," Hodges said.

Not every interaction will go smoothly, but the ones that do will help make the world a better place, Elgenaidi said.

"You want to be a community made up of people who have each other's backs. That doesn't happen by itself," she said. "You actually have to work for it."

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