CAIR-Chicago Outreach Coordinator Visits Turkey

Gerald in Turkey (2)

In late October 2009, I had the pleasure and opportunity of joining partners from Chicago’s interfaith community for an intercultural and friendship tour in Turkey. The trip was organized by one of CAIR-Chicago’s local partners, the Niagara Foundation, and its international partner in Turkey, BAKIAD—an acronym in Turkish that stands for the “Bosphorus-Atlantic Association of Cultural Cooperation & Friendship”.

Each traveler was invited to explore both the historical and contemporary sites of Turkey’s diverse and rich culture among its faith and ethnic communities. Turkey, a growing sociopolitical and economic power in the Mediterranean, has served as the main crossroads between Asia and Europe since antiquity, distinctively through Istanbul—the famed city that served as the imperial capital of the Romans, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Turk realms. From this, we could examine how time’s impact and current issues influence the country, extracting their models and perspectives with our understanding of interfaith and intercultural relationships in America.

I shared this ten-day journey with ten fellow interfaith practitioners, all Chicagoland natives. Aside from our residence and interest in interreligious dialogue and engagement, we each drew from our differences that nurtured our interpersonal dynamics. Among us were adherents of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism. Our professions also varied, with a few of us wearing multiple hats that included clergy (a Lutheran and United Church of Christ pastor and Episcopalian bishop of Chicago), non-profit administrators of interfaith groups or entities, retired nuclear physicist, construction architect, journalists and editors, business analyst, hedge fund manager, television writer and producer, teacher, college student and debate coach. All except me have traveled abroad before, and even a few have been to Turkey at least once. Age (and generations) was another interesting moniker—ages from mid-20s to 70s. And, of course, the mosaic of humanity was well represented by race and ethnicity. What added to this delightful mix was our Turkish companion who taught English, and was with us for most of the tour.

Our interfaith party visited nearly two dozen sites that cast in two categories. The first are historical sites pertinent to the great monotheistic Abrahamic faiths or reflecting the imperial rulers. The other sites were institutions that instill the philosophy of 20th century Turkish religious scholar M. Fethullah Gülen, who spoke to humanity’s harmony through respect and considerations for faith and creed.

The sites are located in cities and regions etched in the annals of history but continue to be anchors in Turkey’s modern society: Istanbul, İzmir, Kayseri, Kudasi, Ephesus, Kapadokya (Cappadocia), Nevşehir, Konya, Şanliurfa (Urfa), and Mardin. We met with Turkish elected official, religious clergy, investors, educators, doctors, professionals and community leaders who shared with us the issues and prospects of Turkey today.

What was significant for Americans visiting Turkey? Our understanding modern interfaith movement is key and crucial, with Turkey serving as the advent source for interreligious and intercultural dialogue and engagement. While Turkey is a secular nation founded in 1923, it remains home to religious communities and relationships that span nearly two millennia. For instance, one of the more notable facts was the invitation and protection of Jews during the 1492 Inquisition in Spain. A rising regional power in the Mediterranean, Turkey is similar to the Windy City in regards as its sociopolitical global role. In contrast, Chicago is known as the birthplace of the modern interfaith movement, given the first Parliament of World’s Religions was founded here in the 1893 World Fair’s Columbian Exposition, followed by its centennial meeting that was also held here in 1993.

The tour provided each of us a new perspective on our work in interfaith. Meeting with Turkish professionals pivoted our current outlook of where interfaith dialogue is at presently—traditionally, groups are formed to talk and discuss, and occasionally do. We agreed that we should take more action that is inclusive of all Chicago communities, taking on social justice issues societies face throughout the world. My colleagues and I were aware of some hurdles that have stalled proactive work . Nevertheless, we left with the commitment to trail through those obstacles and to work closer now that we know each other as friends rather than random interfaith workers.

On a personal note, I had an exhilarating experience. Being my first international travel, I couldn’t have been more impressed and enchanted with Turkey. My senses were triggered, fluctuated between personal and mutual reflections as to why this journey meant so much to me—wisdom should be yearned and shared. There were debates, teasing, doubt, critique and fatigue among laughter, awe, surprises, inquiry and intrigue. To hear the call to prayer echo from every corner is hauntingly beautiful. Abound the narrow streets and throngs of Turks in the old bazaars in Fatih, Konya and Mardin traced billions of steps trekked before. The mosques, churches, cave dwellings and even underground cities that predate many of American architectural marvels, leave you breathless. And the food! Morsels are non-existent in Turkish cuisine, with ample spoils of olives, grains, cheeses, fish, meats to savor; then finish off with sweets and drinks of the sour cherry, pomegranate, kiwi, coffee or chai—all seem simple but lavishing. All those memorable moments are quite hard to place with another group of unique friends that each added a new story to my life’s tales.

In essence, this tour deepened my passion for bringing together people from all walks of life to learn from one another’s shared pasts and varied truths. More importantly, I matured a bit more than had I never traveled to Turkey. The many sun rays, wayward winds, and moon beams tell how this civilization etches anew within the annals of time. I believe I’m more in sync, and more rooted, than ever before.

I’d like to thank the Niagara Foundation and BAKIAD for their joint initiative to bring together Americans and Turks to sift through our uncertainties and preconceived views to understanding and friendship. As one of my colleagues put it, Turkey is complex. The amount of travel and stops while we were in Turkey would have been quite difficult, lethargic even, for even a popular tour company could coordinate, let alone one person or a smaller party for 10 days. Therefore, I’d like to give special thanks to Hakan Berberoğlu and Gilbert “Budd” Friend-Jones for arranging and organizing our tour.

In addition to Hakan and Budd being my travel companions, my thoughts and warm regards are shared with M. Ali Khan, Susan Devemann, Rohinton and Roshan Rivetna, Aaron and Sonia Cohen, Terri Hessner, Jeffrey Lee, Gabriel Friend-Jones and Savaş Şenel for their friendship, openness, and presence on my cherished journey in Turkey.

Copyright © 2009 CAIR-Chicago