Face-to-Face, Heart-to-Heart: Looking for Peace in Abu Dhabi and Finding a Glimpse of God

Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig

Last month, Rabbi Lustig served as a co-chair of “An American Caravan of Peace,” a three-day summit in the United Arab Emirates. We are pleased to share with you his reflections.

Ten rabbis, ten imams, and ten evangelical pastors walk into a ballroom in Abu Dhabi. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in reality, it was 30 prominent American clergy who were beginning a journey to understanding, acceptance, and the hope of peace. From different faiths, life experiences, and ten different pilot cities in the United States, we gathered in Abu Dhabi at the first American Caravan for Peace.

This meeting was the vision of Pastor Bob Roberts, a megachurch minster from Texas, and H.E. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. Sheikh Bin Bayyah is an Islamic scholar, world renowned for his work to stop the proliferation of extremism and violence in the name of Islam. He has stood in the White House and at the National Prayer Breakfast to denounce such acts and claim they hold no place in Islam. He is also a sweet whisper of a man whose warmth, wisdom, and bravery inspires all. Pastor Bob wanted to confront what he knows to be true about the evangelical pulpit — that it can be used to engender either a xenophobic fear or universal love. Pastor Bob’s hope was to move Evangelicals to the latter by letting them learn face-to-face what is in the heart of the Jew and the Muslim alike.

Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein and I were asked to help put together a group of rabbis who would be willing to partner in this experiment in the promise of human potential. Our hope was — and is — to move rabbis from being observers of the divisive rhetoric of our day, to being the agents of change in our communities.

We were flown half way around the world to open our hearts, to think creatively, and to commit to a promise of peace. During our time in Abu Dhabi, we shared our journeys, fears, stories, frustrations, and hopes for acceptance and partnership in peace. We took the time to know one another, to ask the difficult questions, to be true to our faiths, and to face our fears about those who are different than us. We learned to embrace the truth we found in others; simply put, we made the stranger a friend.

Some topics we placed on a “do not disturb list” to first build trust. We knew that if we could find the courage and grace to dismantle the assumptions, bigotry, hatred, and prejudice that sometimes accompany us from our history, experiences, and habitual bad behavior — all of which blind us — we might see God in the face of the other. The “do not disturb list” will then disturb us so much, we will be compelled to seek, if not resolution, then understanding and acceptance of our differences.

It is hard to describe what took place in Abu Dhabi, but it filled me with hope. Sheikh Bin Bayyah wanted us to know firsthand the love and acceptance that can be found in Islam, so he welcomed us into his home in Abu Dhabi. In a time of hate crimes, divisive politics, and diminished civility, we decided there was an opportunity for a different voice to be heard so there could be a different story told of these days. On a veranda overlooking the beautiful water, sharing meals, and feasting on human kindness, our differences did not disappear. They became clearer; and they were celebrated, questioned, tested, fortified, and — most of all — respected. I was neither baptized nor converted, but I was transformed by our faith in each other and inspired by the possibility of what we could do together. In a few days, peace moved from being a possibility to a promise we made to each other and to God.

Working in both city groups and faith groups, we were a creative, courageous collection of souls who were willing to do the difficult work. We made a promise to replicate in our home cities what we had found in our time together in Abu Dhabi: to help others have the courage to write a new story that has a different ending for ourselves and our children.

I was honored to participate in this American Caravan for Peace. I left Abu Dhabi reaffirming my belief that this is some of the most important work we can be doing today — and knowing that this type of work has been at the heart of the Washington Hebrew Congregation role in American Judaism since its creation. I hope you will embrace this opportunity as we join with our Evangelical Christian and Muslim partners in the face-to-face work of peace making.

In our sacred text, we find the tale of the creation of the holy ark of the covenant. It describes in detail that at the top of the ark there are two cherubim positioned face-to-face. We are told that is where God will reside. Join me as we journey toward peace, face-to-face and heart-to-heart. Peace is not only a possibility. It is a promise we make together to our children, to our children’s children, and to our God.