Interfaith Abu Dhabi

Pastor Cal Jernigan, senior pastor of Central Christian Church of Arizona; Rabbi Jeremy Schneider, spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami Scottsdale and immediate past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix; and Sheikh Didmar Faja, Imam of the United Islamic Center of Arizona, stand in front of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

A rabbi, an evangelical pastor and an imam walk into a hotel – it sounds like the start of a joke we’ve heard a thousand times before, but this scenario is no joke.

From May 2-4, 10 rabbis, 10 evangelical pastors and 10 imams from 10 cities in the United States were invited to Abu Dhabi by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies to take part in the program, “Religions Promoting Peace Through Trust and Partnership.” The conference took place at Jumeirah Etihad Towers, a luxury hotel in Abu Dahbi.

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami, Pastor Cal Jernigan of Central Christian Church and Imam Didmar Faja of the United Islamic Center of Arizona represented Phoenix. Other cities included Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Philadelphia, Detroit, Orlando/Miami and Washington, D.C.

Paid for by the United Arab Emirates, the 30-member clergy delegation was invited to “get out of their comfort zones and out of their time zones … to get to know each other on a much deeper, meaningful level,” Schneider says.

The idea to promote understanding among these three groups springs from the work of evangelical Pastor Bob Roberts of Dallas/Fort Worth, who has been quietly holding retreats with evangelical pastors and Muslim imams for the past six years to forge better relationships between the two religions.

Schneider, whose last pulpit was at Temple Shalom in Dallas, was invited by Roberts to attend the Abu Dhabi conference.

While in Dallas, the two men worked side by side with a local imam to program interfaith events. Schneider was also part of an American delegation in 2008 that traveled to Egypt and Syria for an interfaith study tour, and in 2009, he was the keynote speaker at the Islamic Society of North America.

At the Abu Dhabi conference, Schneider got to know the other clergy from Phoenix.

“We have very different perspectives, theologically, of how we see the world … but that doesn’t change the area of common ground of (making) the world a better place today,” he says.

Jernigan of Central Christian Church says the conference gave the participants a chance to make friends with people who have different roots and different understandings about God.

“What we don’t know, we fear, and what we fear, we tend to misrepresent or represent poorly,” Jernigan says. “Why don’t we just sit down and get to know each other and let’s minimize that.”

Jernigan and Imam Faja had met at a pastors/imams retreat in Phoenix the year before and became friends.

“That’s where we started discussing ways of working together toward promoting peace and security in our communities,” Faja says.

During the conference, the 30 clergy members participated in icebreaker activities and then moved on to more difficult conversations about stereotypes and other misnomers surrounding their respective religions, Schneider says.

In addition to the formal relationship-building activities, the clergy had many informal discussions at the hotel, Schneider says.

“We had the more delicate and difficult conversations by being together intensively over three days,” he says. “We got to know each other as human beings.”

The clergy also got a chance to have some fun outside the hotel, including sand dune surfing in Jeeps and trucks and sand skiing. They also took a trip to the Grand Sultan’s Mosque.

While in Abu Dhabi, the three Phoenix clergy devised a 12-month action plan to execute once they got back to Arizona.

“The immediate plan with the pastor and imam in Phoenix is to continue to get to know each other – to have dinner in each other’s homes, to witness and participate in each other’s places of worship and then move to activities that engage congregants of each other’s congregations,” Schneider says.

In June, Jernigan and Schneider will attend an Iftar dinner at the mosque during Ramadan. Then, Schneider and Faja and their wives will have dinner at the pastor’s house in August.

“In September, we are inviting the imam and pastor into Yom Kippur services,” Schneider says. The clergy will also participate in an afternoon Yom Kippur study session.

Because the three have now spent time together and feel comfortable with one another, it’s time to widen the circle, Jernigan says.

Faja looks forward to getting to know the families of the other two clergy and participating in combined events.

“It’s extremely important that we work with one another,” he says. “When people see that we stand for one another, I think it’s going to make a big difference.”

Schneider echoes that sentiment.

“There’s a lot of work to do in our communities and if we do it together, we will not only have a greater impact on the communities in which we live, but we will also help to do our little part of bringing a little more peace to the world,” he says.

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