Two were Los Angeles natives, representing different generations: Rabbi Don Singer grew up on the West Side, attending grammar school during World War II. Imam Suhail Hasan Mulla was a Valley guy, a surfer, who drove past Pepperdine hundreds of times, but had not set foot on campus until Wednesday, March 21.
The other two came from opposite sides of the earth: Rich Little grew up in Brisbane, Australia. Srdjan Stakic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and lived there until he was eighteen and war broke out.
All four came together to have an interfaith dialogue, an exchange with multiple strands of faiths represented. The variety of denominations represented began with Srdjan’s story. He grew up in Belgrade, the son of atheists, who told him, once war broke out, “If anyone asks you, we are Orthodox Christians.” Srdjan left Yugoslavia for America, where he lived for two years with a Mormon family, attending a Church of Latter Day Saints for two years. He did not become a Mormon, but he came to love and admire the family he lived with, and next week will attend a wedding of one of their children. Since that time he has earned a doctoral degree from Columbia University and has traveled the world, working for the United Nations. He has mediated between cultures in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and believes the basis of interfaith dialogue is rooted in respect.
Respect. What all four shared was a conviction that respecting your neighbor’s faith — allowing someone to hold a belief system that is different from yours, but honoring their right to do so — is fundamental to the concept of religion. As I listened to their stories, it seemed there was something inherently American – in the best and highest sense – about all of them. Suhail Mulla’s parents emigrated from India. He grew up in Los Angeles, baffling people with his ethnicity: “I would get taken for an African-American; some people thought I was Latino; but I was accepted.” Srdjan’s parents ultimately moved to America. His father and mother were both academics in Yugoslavia, college professors – but in America it was Srdjan who initially got his father a job: washing dishes in the restaurant where Srdjan waited tables. And yet, after a period of time, his mother was hired to teach at a college in Arkansas, and his father resumed his academic career, too. America, with its malleable borders of possibility, remains the place where transformation is possible.
Rich Little came to America from Australia, moved to Arkansas, then Chicago, then Malibu. And Don Singer was born in Los Angeles and still lives here. (But he was the one who had just returned from a six-week trip to Israel, a trip which filled him with hope for the future.)
Don read from Martin Buber:
“The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; and as I become the I, I say Thou. All real living is meeting.”
And Rich Little closed with a spirited defense of the value of reaching across religious boundaries, and embracing each other for our encompassing humanity.