by Jeff Sykes

Zeynep Tulu demonstrated Turkish water marbling at a recent Stranger to Neighbor event in Greensboro.
Photo by Todd Drake

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Last Thursday the news from the Gaza Strip was grim. Tunnels and terrorists and school children being blown to bits by the vanguard of technology. It was on the radio. It was on the tv. My Facebook feed was on fire with acrimony lobbed indiscriminately back and forth.

This tension filled me as I made my way up Lee Street and over toward Presbyterian Church of the Covenant near UNCG for a Stranger to Neighbor Event co-hosted by Faith Action International House. Rev. David Fraccaro, Faith Action’s executive director, had invited me earlier in the week. I had looked forward to the event, which focused on the topic of Ramadan, and was to include a meal to break the daily fast at sundown.

The church and Faith Action partnered with the Divan Center to bring Christians, Muslims and others together to learn about the gifts of fasting, service and unity during the holiest of days for those of the Muslim faith.

Greensboro’s diversity is one of the city’s most amazing aspects. Tucked beneath the shiny surface of economic development, real estate deals and big business are vibrant communities of people, living, flourishing, making the most of liberty and security.

Fraccaro went right at that intersection of diversity and economic vitality in his opening remarks, observing that Greensboro has witnessed a 1,000 percent increase in its immigrant population in the last 20 years. Diversity improves the economic health of any community, he said.

“Are we going to fear each other as strangers or embrace each other as neighbors?” Fraccaro said.

Church of the Covenant’s co-pastor, Chris East, amplified that very question in his opening remarks, in which he spoke eloquently about the disconnect between Christian belief and our consumer society. He also said many might question why he allowed the church to be used for an event related to Islam. East said he regretted the divisive spirit many Christians held toward Muslims and Jews.

“That’s part of my heritage. That’s a part of my struggle,” East said.

But there was no division here on this night. The fellowship hall was anchored in the middle by a serene woman dappling paint from a brush into a bin of water. Zeynep Tulu was her name. She gracefully moved a comb-like tool through the water, leaving the paint in tear dropped shapes, after which she ran a sheet of paper across the surface, transforming the blank sheet into a design familiar to anyone who’s seen the more ornate insides of bound books.

At other times she used a needlelike tool to form flowers amidst the swirls of color. We watched and cheered each time she pulled the colorful sheets, like magic, one after the other from the water’s surface.

Tulu spoke about the technique, known as Ebru, or Turkish marbling art, which she said first appeared in the 12th century and was later used in Istanbul for book binding and decoration.

“To see God in all the beauties of the world,” was their motto, she said, as they sought to increase beauty via their art.

Beauty again was increased as a woman sang a Turkish lullaby augmented by western modal jazz played on piano by her friend. Next she played viola as he pounded out a 7/8 rhythm on the keys. Greensboro artist and photographer Todd Drake spoke about his travels to the Middle East. He talked about teaching young women living in Islamic states how to take self-portraits, with or without the burqa.

The high point came though when Wasif Qureshi, president of the Islamic Center of Greensboro, took the microphone. A tall man with a thick beard, I could have easily prejudged him, if that had been my intention, before he began to speak. After his words began, however, it was my understanding that increased.

“This is definitely my first fast that I’m going to break in a church,” Qureshi deadpanned. “Mark that off the bucket list.”

The 100 or so people gathered this night, which included the outgoing Greensboro chief of police, Ken Miller, laughed at the quip. Qureshi spoke of the many hearts of Islam and of the battle against evil, which he said is the one thing all religions of the Abrahamic tradition have in common.

But as his words focused on the difficulty of fasting, which increases as one gets deeper into Ramadan, his dedication was unmistakable.

We were four days from the end of Ramadan, which ended on Monday. Qureshi said that as the days increased it became more fascinating each time he broke the fast in the evening. His tongue would absorb the flavors of the first bite, mesmerized by the beauty of nourishment. Feeding his daughter in the evenings he would often get goose bumps thinking about that first sip of water to come.

Part of the evening was spent in small groups discussing our various religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and coming up with an answer to the question “Why is it important for Christians and Muslims to be together breaking the fast in a church?” At the table I observed, the discussions were congenial, but we found it hard to focus on the main question. One of the group members, Amber Urooj, a graduate student at NC A&T State University, said the coming together of people of different backgrounds restored her faith in the world, made difficult by that news from Gaza I mentioned earlier.

Many of the groups in the end had some version of the words sharing, breaking down barriers, find common ground, and respect in their answers to the posed question.

“It helps us understand how much more alike we are than different,” said Chief Miller.

But it was 21-year-old Tychus Carter, a follower of Islam from Greensboro, who summed it up best. His group failed to complete the assignment, but for good reason.

“We were too busy getting to know each other,” he said. “It’s a really important thing. We were meant to be doing this.” !