Last week, I was in Salt Lake City attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions. 10,000 people from different faiths and communities gathered at this momentous event, and 10 of those individuals made up our Northeastern delegation. 3 staff and 7 students of the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service took part in sessions, plenaries, and experiences that taught us new lessons, from the wisdom of grandmothers to Mormon feminism to combating hate speech, both in person and online. When I returned home late Monday evening, I felt overly exhausted, yet thought deeply about the stories I took with me. Throughout last week, I learned many lessons from tears.
Before we touched down in Salt Lake City, I clung to the book in my lap as my middle seat jerked back and forth from turbulence. The book is called “Tears and Tributes” and tells the story of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (‘AS) and his companions. The story was particularly pertinent to last week, as both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims observed Ashura. For Sunni Muslims, Ashura marks the day the Pharaoh in Egypt freed the Israelites. However, for Shi’a Muslims, the day observes the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, son of Ali, the nephew of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). In Shi’a communities, this time is deeply mournful. As my stomach turned with anxiety, tears streamed down my face as my mind immersed itself in the beautiful but tragic story of the events at Karbala.
Last week, recovering from jet lag and lack of sleep, I attended the Islamic Society of Northeastern’s Fall Dinner. ISNU’s student leaders had been planning all semester for this event, featuring two speakers: a Sunni activist and non-profit founder, Sara Minkara, and a Shi’a convert and scholar, Coa Schwab. Approximately 100 students attended the dinner- it was a big success. Seeing the student leaders enjoy the fruits of their work made me so delighted. I laughed with the students at my table throughout the evening.
As I began to say my good byes, one student began a lively conversation about some of my professors at the University of Chicago. We excitedly shared the books we had read about Muslim Worship, and promised to have tea with a newly realized mutual friend. When I finally made my way toward the exit, our Shi’a Muslim Advisor gestured toward the student, and said “He is such a beautiful soul. Yesterday, he spent an hour with me, listening to the story of the tragedies at Karbala, crying with me. Though he is Sunni, he cares deeply that the Shi’a community is acknowledged and welcomed. I appreciated that so much this evening.”
Tears welled in my eyes again- this moment illuminated the real essence of “reclaiming the heart of our humanity”, the theme of the 10,000 person gathering I had just attended. Perhaps this gesture seemed small. Listening to a story and making a brief announcement at the Fall Dinner about the differences in Sunni and Shi’a observance of Ashura may not heal deep wounds in both communities, but isn’t reclaiming our shared human heart the first step? In order to help each other heal, we must acknowledge each other’s experiences. Wiping away the few tears on my face, I thought, “this is where we must start”, and headed home.