Mary Lahaj’s parents were founders of the first mosque in New England, but Mary grew up knowing very little about Islam.
“I was 29 before I met another Muslim,” she laughs. The mosque, which took 30 years to build, wasn’t completed until Mary was a junior in high school. Since most of her friends in Weymouth, Mass., were Catholics, she saw no allure in attending services at a mosque her friends weren’t attending.
“I would have become a Catholic but they wouldn’t let me in,” she says. The Friday night CYO dances looked particularly fun.
Fast forward to the 1980s: “Remember? They started hijacking airplanes?” Mary asks. Suddenly, people wanted to talk to Muslims, have them speak at schools and Rotary clubs and synagogues.
“I didn’t really know anything about my religion,” Mary admits. “I was spiritually bankrupt.”
A brochure from the Hartford Seminary crossed her desk and sparked her imagination. She began her studies, eventually receiving a Master’s in Religious Studies, Islam and Christian/Muslim Relations.
“I learned my religion from scratch and I learned it from the Protestants,” she says.
In the course of her ensuing career, she has been a leader in bringing various faiths together, whether through her work as a chaplain or her role at the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland. The Muslim chaplain field is new; Mary was the first Muslim chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Boston. She followed that with a chaplaincy at Simmons College, where she shared a prayer room with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplains. The Christians were stymied about how to decorate the room, Mary remembers, and couldn’t think of anything the religions had in common. “Um, nature, family, love, one God, friendship, brotherhood, forgiveness …” Mary suggested.
She has continued to educated and communicate about the similarities of the three Abrahamic faiths and sees it as her calling. "To build bridges, you focus on what you share in common," she says. "There's plenty."
Mary and others were recently part of a first-time event in Wayland, where Temple Shir Tikva is located across the street from the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland. The two faith communities have a rich tradition of gathering, but not in worship. A women’s group, Neighbor to Neighbor, has been meeting in living rooms, sharing traditions and food and getting to know each other for nearly 10 years with questions like, “Where did your name come from?” Religious leaders followed with a Wednesday night program, Crossing The Street, which alternated locations each week and discussed topics including prayers and fasting.
When a member of the synagogue suggested the Muslims observe a Shabbat service, it still took another year to bring it to reality. They invited families and asked the assembled children to form a spontaneous choir to sing “Salaam Shalom.” The Friday evening gathering was very moving,” Mary says. “It was so beautiful. I never realized there was so much music. I get goosebumps just talking about it.”
Marilyn Newman, a member of Temple Shir Tikva, agrees. She wrote a letter to the editor in which she says, "I left with what could only be described as the feeling that “my cup runneth over.” It was an evening during which new friendships were forged, while old friends came together again, when Isaac and Ishmael, brothers and children of brothers, came with open hands and open hearts to embrace each other in brotherhood, hope and peace.”
After the Shabbat service at the synagogue, people walked across the street to observe sunset prayers at the mosque, a first for most of the Jews. Then the Muslims fed their neighbors.
Interfaith events like this are more common than people realize, Mary says.”We have a lot of book groups, there’s an interfaith group in Weston and Wayland that’s been meeting for 25 years. People don’t realize how much is going on.” She is excited about the possibilities of new gatherings too, and is planning to start organizing a teen gathering after Ramadan.
The Brookfield Institute also is excited about furthering interfaith relationships and we're working tirelessly to do so. See the work we do and, if you have ideas or would like to participate, email Karen Nell Smith, Program Director Interfaith Engagement.
Also, our friend and colleague Yehezkel Landau has written a powerful post, "Anti-Muslim Rhetoric is Sacrilegious and Anti-American," for the Hartford Seminary. Read it here.