At the 27th Seminarian Retreat, Sharing Our Faith Traditions, some fifty people gathered at New Braunfels, Texas, to discuss how the theme “blessing” is understood and practiced in the three Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The retreat which took place last week at the T Bar M Resort and Conference Center is an event co-Sponsored by the Multicultural Alliance (MCA) and The Council of Southwest Theological Schools. Inside this big crowd, two Muslims from North Texas represented their faith and shared their traditions with the rest of the Seminarians: Imam Zia Sheikh, Imam of Irving Islamic Center, and I, representing Hartford Seminary where I study.
Besides the Conservative Jewish seminarians from the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies in California, the different Christian denominations represented in the retreat all came from across Big Texas. The schools represented were Abilene Christian Graduate School of Theology, Austin Presbyterian School of Theology, Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary, Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Houston Graduate School of Theology, Perkins School of Theology at Dallas’ SMU, and Seminary of the Southwest.
The moderator for this retreat was Cheryl Kimberling, PhD, President of the Multicultural Alliance in Fort Worth. She has done this retreat for several years now, and she is proud to have started inviting Muslim seminarians to her event in the past few years. The Multicultural Alliance is a pioneer in cultural and religious diversity activism as it has served Fort Worth in initiating a religious and cultural dialog that builds bridges of understanding and peace. Their goal “is to promote an inclusive community, eliminate bias, bigotry, and oppression and encourage understanding and equity of all diversity through shared experiences and educational programming.”
Over four days, the seminarians met in one large group as well as in different smaller groups over three meals, discussions, presentations, worship demonstrations, and friendly socialization. What they shared with one another was how the concept of blessing is understood in each tradition, what their traditions have in common, and what differences separate each one of them from the rest. The Christian scholar was Pastor Brent Beasley from the Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. The Jewish scholar was Rabbi Rachel Kobrin from Austin’s Congregation Agudas Achim. Both scholars, along with Imam Sheikh, presented outstanding and inspirational talks and answered questions with open hearts.
Everyone left the retreat at its closing with positive thoughts and inspirations as a take away. I, especially, had not realized the blessing that was awaiting me at this event before I joined. I participated with the intention of doing what I have been doing for the past decade, and that is, represent Islam in a realistic way that balances the image projected by the media and the extremists in my tradition. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the encouragement and support that my fellow seminarians showed me, and by their warm welcome into their midst, and by the honest and warm conversations we have had, and by the friendships I have made. All of this happened on a ranch resort in South Texas where attendees shared their passion for God and theology with people who may have differed of who God is and certainly believed in different creeds. Yet, the blessing of coming together to spread peace, love, and understanding spiritually nurtured this group of seminarians, who saw the face of God in the Other as the Judeo-Christian tradition narrates.
As a Muslim, I was once again reminded by what God says in the Qur’an, chapter 16, verse 18, “If you would count the blessings of God, never would you be able to number them, for God is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.” And being at this retreat, I have fulfilled a major commandment that the Qur’an mentions is chapter 3, verse 64, “O People of the Book (Jews and Christians)! Come to common terms between us and you: That we worship none but God; and that we associate no partners with him…”