Hugs that change the world
Rick Ufford-Chase and Sayyid Syeed reflect on the power of a friendship that transformed their callings
As told to Paul Seebeck
In our so-called postdenominational world, it can be difficult to know what it means to be Presbyterian. Sometimes it takes an encounter with a person of another faith to remind us of who we are. The following is a story of one such encounter. Rick Ufford-Chase was 40 years old and nine months removed from being elected moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004) when he met Dr. Sayyid Syeed. Ufford-Chase was one of the youngest moderators in recent PC(USA) history, the first to serve for two years. Syeed was then general secretary of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the largest Muslim organization in North America. Syeed, who was always looking to meet Christians and was intrigued that Presbyterians had elected such a young, emerging leader as moderator, invited Ufford-Chase to visit ISNA headquarters. In their own words they describe how they met and the power of the friendship that drove them deeper into a commitment for peace and justice through interfaith relationships.
Ufford-Chase: Jay Rock [of Interfaith Relations] called me, saying, “You need to meet some folks who were appreciative of our General Assembly actions around Israeli-Palestinian issues.” So we drove to a mosque on the west side of Indianapolis to meet Dr. Syeed. As I prepared to meet him, I remember thinking how inexperienced I was—I had very little personal experience with the Muslim community in the United States.
Syeed: We arranged a reception and luncheon with around 50 guests to honor Rev. Ufford-Chase. Here you had this young man who was elected as moderator by Presbyterians—we felt that it was quite significant.
Ufford-Chase: I walked in the door not knowing what to expect. As I crossed the prayer space in the mosque, Dr. Syeed opened his arms to embrace me with a bear hug. Immediately I felt at ease, like I had this personal connection to him. Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004), and Sayyid Syeed, former general secretary of the Islamic Society of North America, meet in the chapel of the Office of Public Witness.
Syeed: It’s a very interesting thing. I was just reading verses in the Qur’an that tell us we are to look for Christians who are full of compassion, mercy, and kindness. When I met Rick at the luncheon, I told him how keen we are with Presbyterians and Christians who are centered in their own faith yet committed to all of God’s people.
Ufford-Chase: Here was this man who was just as passionate and committed to his faith as I was to mine. I felt again how inexperienced I was in the world, how as moderator of the denomination I needed to work at understanding more deeply interfaith relationships.
Syeed: I saw the wonderment in this compassionate, young leader. He could see that all of us had the same understanding that each of us had been created in God’s image—with a divine spark, a sense of dignity. We talked about several different topics, then started playing around with names that rhymed with Rick and Rock, which led to great laughter.
Ufford-Chase: After lunch we agreed to stay in touch. Just a short time later, in August of 2005, he invited me to the ISNA national gathering in Chicago, to receive an award for our denomination on behalf of its peace efforts. They held a press conference at that time, issuing a fatwa condemning the violence of terrorist action as anathema to Islamic tradition. As he greeted me on stage, he said to the gathered assembly, “If we cannot reach across religious boundaries for the work of reconciliation and peace here, in the most religiously pluralistic place on earth, then we have no right to expect our sisters and brothers to do so anywhere else in the world.” That message really gave me pause. I thought about it and wrote about it and preached about it as I traveled as moderator and eventually changed my own vocational track 180 degrees in order to take it seriously.
Syeed: As Rick shook hands with me, the 40,000 gathered Muslims stood and began to cheer. They were so fascinated to see this young man who was introduced as chief of the Presbyterian Church. As he reached out to hug me, the people kept on cheering. So we kept hugging. Something special, contagious was happening in him and in us. The standing ovation went on for some time like this. People recognized the spiritual bond. As they kept cheering and clapping, I told him he had a big responsibility on his shoulders. Both of us felt the impact, that we needed to go deeper in opening up to the other. Our hugs helped create an environment of more hugging that led to respectful and loving interaction rather than clashes and confrontation. This opened up new areas of interfaith relations to me that were not possible in the past.
A simple meeting creates a lifetime of change
Within two years of their meeting, Syeed was named ISNA’s national director for the Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, in Washington, DC. “I wanted to take our interfaith dialogue to a higher level,” he says. In 2007 Syeed took a delegation of imams and rabbis to Poland and Germany to visit Holocaust sites, so that they could see together the horror and injustice experienced by the Jewish people.
A year later, in 2008, Ufford-Chase and his wife, Kitty, were named codirectors at Stony Point Conference Center. It is now home to the Community of Living Traditions—a multifaith community of Muslims, Jews, and Christians who live and work together, practicing their own faith while working as allies for justice and peace. The community’s Summer Institute invites young adults to participate in a five-week residential program dedicated to creating community. The 2013 institute will focus on earth care.
“In many ways, the work I am doing is because of how I heard that message at the ISNA gathering,” says Ufford-Chase. “Our Community of Living Traditions is the first of its kind in North America. We’ve been told that we are ‘leading the way to a new kind of interfaith awareness in this post–September 11 world.’?”
ISNA and interfaith peace in the Middle East—SAYYID SYEED
ISNA’s National Interreligious Leaders Initiative for Peace in the Middle East brings together faith leaders representing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities who advocate the safety and security of Israel and the creation of a respectable, viable Palestinian state, side by side. Jewish and Muslim leaders, who are committed to the two-nation solution, have visited the Holy Land together and deepened their commitment. Together we have met with several consecutive secretaries of state. We have generated confidence and goodwill among faith communities through our dialogues and partnerships, discussing issues over which there is disagreement. More interaction is leading to more understanding and appreciation of each other’s positions.
We were astounded by the support received from other faith communities during the 2010 election, which saw a considerable rise in Islamophobia. When a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Qur’an, and when opposition arose to the Ground Zero mosque and to building a mosque in Tennessee, other religious organizations came and fought on our behalf and helped create Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a campaign dedicated to ending anti-Muslim sentiment. This experience of interfaith solidarity and support has prompted us to take on the responsibility of expressing our own solidarity and support for the Christian minorities in Muslim-majority countries. This is a new global hug directly traced to those hugs early in our American Muslim experience. It rejects the bigotry and discrimination toward Muslims from other faith groups and now identifies similar trends among our coreligionists toward minorities in their respective countries.
Islamic Society of North America: isna.net
Stony Point Conference Center and its multifaith community: stonypointcenter.org