By Attorney Robert S. Bennett
It was not what I expected. Not sure what I expected on our 11 day trip to Turkey with Interfaith Ministries of Houston ("IM") that was sponsored by the Turkish organization, the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue("IID"). I was pretty skeptical starting off as to what the trip was really about. I had prepared a three-ring briefing book in order to discuss the attributes and historical significance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, and even the recent incursions of the Turkish army into Iraq. But whatever happened on this trip, I was prepared to harangue, argue, debate, persuade, and even try to convert to my way of thinking and belief. This trial attorney would not be easily persuaded. Wasn't the real agenda of this group from Turkeyto try and make Islamists out of us and just to promote their religion? Certainly, as I was offered a free trip by Elliott Gershenson,CEO, of IM these thoughts crossed my mind. There is no free lunch. Maybe we will end up listening to a condominium promotion on the Bosphorus.
We were a diverse group that started from Houston. Two Black women from evangelic Christian backgrounds, an Episcopal Priest fresh from seminary, two Islamic medical doctors (one from Syria and the other from Pakistan), an agnostic businessman, a Catholic Priest, and several including myself from main stream Protestantism. Also a Former Houston city council member, a county official, publisher of the newspaper, The Defender, several attorneys, - a cross section of some of the leaders and accomplished citizens of Houston.
Maybe I thought that once we arrived in Turkey we would be taken to a Mosque and the Imam would talk about his faith. They could use the favorite Protestant Evangelic technique of making you listen to the conversion experience before they feed you. We would be in their country and I still remember the movie, 'Midnight Express"; anything could happen.
We arrived in Turkey after a long 24 hour trip from Houston. A beautiful hotel, the WOW, awaited us with its own Turkish bath and workout facility - a four star or better hotel. We immediately went to bed since it was midnight when we finished with customs and got to the hotel. The next morning, I got up and went down stairs to tables of food awaiting us for breakfast and my reaction was one of whoa! My concern about hearing a talk before we ate immediately disappeared. You could start with 10 different cheeses and as many different cold cuts. Cucumbers and fresh tomatoes were present at every meal. Omelets, sausages, hard boiled eggs and numerous different olives stretched before me. Growing up in Amarillo, Texas olives were reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now I had black, green, marooned, stuffed, and pitted - the variety was endless. Fresh brewed coffee, wonderful tea, and several different juices were provided. This does not include ordering from the menu if you really wanted something else.
Within the hour we were loaded into a bus and taken to Topkapi Palace and for the next 9 days we sped thru the sights and scenes and activities of seeing Turkeythat few tourists and maybe few Turkish citizens ever get to see. In another article on the website, The Abrahamic Dialogue Society of Istanbul, all of our stops, meetings and attendees will be discussed. This blog may still be under construction so be patient. But what I wanted to present in this essay what was the essence of traveling with hosts who are Muslims and part of IID and were guiding a group consisting of a Reformed Jew, three American citizens who are from the Islamic faith, our Catholic and Episcopal priests, and the other rag tail spiritual group of dedicated and not so dedicated Protestants.
I should set the record straight in this discourse that I do not know of a single person who was converted to a faith but all of us were changed by the experience. While I had traveled around the world, I had never spent any time in an Islamic country (will leave for later the concept of whether Turkey is a secular, secular-Islamic, or Islamic country). And certainly have not been welcomed to homes, restaurants, schools, colleges, newspapers, and businesses owned and operated by Muslims who want to meet me and welcome the opportunity to talk on any topic we want because they wanted to truly get to know us. My concerns and jaded view point were soon replace by an appreciation for the hospitality of our hosts ( and we thought southern hospitality had meaning!) and an admiration that the motivation for bringing Americans to Turkey was a direct result of the world wide dissemination of the teachings of the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. This hero of peace has touched something profound and deep within the Turkish people that has resulted in the outpouring of education, tolerance, hospitality, outreach, in the best tradition of the school of love in the Islamic tradition based on the life and practices of the Messenger of Islam.
During our trip, we were furnished IID guides at different cities who only wanted to help and serve us during our brief stays. Due to their generosity, we were taken in Izsmir to a magnificent home on the Aegean where we were feted to a meal that the sultans would approve. Supporters of the IID provided dinners at restaurants at our different stops and wanted to make sure we were enjoying our stay in Turkey. No one asked if I wanted to become a Muslim or even asked if I wanted to learn more about the third great Abrahamic world religion.
It took the trip to Turkey and now two weeks of reflection for me to start to understand what a marvelous spiritual experience had unfolded before me. The first example was on our first full day and night in the incredible cosmopolitan and diverse city of Istanbul. We had been sightseeing at the Topkapi Palace and Haghia Sophia. Our plans called for us to drive across town to a Jewish Synagogue and then eat at a home or kosher restaurant. We got caught in the Istanbul traffic that made Houston's I-10 West a breeze, and we arrived too late for the service. What was riveting however was the presence of armed military guarding the synagogue, the elaborate security to enter, and then the massive bomb-proof metal doors that one had to pass thru before reaching the sanctuary. To see such needed precautions since the Synagogue had been bombed left a lasting impression of how precarious Jewish life and worship is in this tolerant country.
Another example was the importance of one of our fellow travelers, the Rev. R. Troy Gatley celebrating a mass at the House of the Virgin Mary at Ephesus. Whether she lived at or on that spot was not as important as focusing on how Christians and Muslims have the deepest respect and reverence for His Holly Mother. Seeing how the different faiths reacted to Abraham’s pool in Urfa or the Christian monastic caves in Central Anatoliawas also profound. But the lesson that I learned from this adventure in the exotic land of Turkey is that coming together, the way we did, developed friendship and this friendship will now allow for the free and candid exchange of religious perspectives that would not have occurred unless the trip and the friendships had developed first. The IID sponsors some wonderful activities such as the seminars that were held at the University of Houston and the Universtiy of Texas. While sitting in a day long seminar may have some benefit, it really does not compare with getting to take a Turkish bath in a 300 year old edifice in the heart of Istanbul with my Islamic, Jewish, and Christian brothers ( the women were in another facility) to bring one closer. We all came on the trip with spiritual inclinations and wondering how that would play out. In the airport in Houston as we started the journey, we commenced with formal acknowledgements and handshakes, when we departed from the same airport after our Turkish Journey, we hugged and embraced knowing that true friendships had been formed.
I am not sure that I had a true and deep exchange on any religious topic during the trip, but the opportunity to see how the Turkish people thru the teachings of the Muslim Interfaith Scholar Fethullah Gulen and the activities of the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue are manifested at the Faith University in Istanbul, the Yamanlar High School in Izmir, the Murat High School in Urfar was life changing. But as important was the development of friendships with those who undertook the trip, guided the trip, and those IID Volunteers who welcomed us when we were in Turkey. From these relationships and friendships that I anticipate will last the rest of my life, true religious dialogue can take place because with the development of friendship, love, and admiration, we can open our arms to each other and embrace the oneness that God has created, if not as brothers and sisters, at least as first cousins. While this was my first trip with such a diverse interfaith composition, I plan to return to Turkey and continue the interfaith dialogue that our friendships have now allowed.