Building bridges BY JOAN KERN, Correspondent
When Imam Yahya Hendi was growing up in Palestine, his father wanted him to become a doctor because it would bring him money and power.
But his mother had a different vision of money and power.
"Her vision was to use money and power to build love and compassion, to contribute to society and the world," he said. "She said, 'You are what you do, not what you get.' "
Hendi, 46, of Frederick, Md., has been the Muslim chaplain for 13 years at Georgetown University, the first American university to hire a Muslim chaplain, and is president of Clergy Beyond Borders, a nonprofit organization he founded about five years ago to promote inter-religious dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims.
The imam spoke about CBB Friday morning at the Lancaster Theological Seminary as part of Franklin & Marshall College's "Multi-faith Week of Meaning and Culture."
In describing his path to CBB, he said if God had wanted the world to have just one religion, "he would have made you all the same."
"You have to compete in the work of righteousness," he said. "I have to celebrate God's will by celebrating diversity.
"Do Jews need to have 2,000 more people to die before they learn to live with Muslims and Christians? That's what Clergy Beyond Borders is about."
He described himself as a "dustonian" (as in "dust to dust, ashes to ashes") rather than a particular kind of Muslim.
Married with four children, he said he's also known as the "feminine imam" because Muslims do not believe that Eve was created from Adam's rib, but that Adam and Eve were created equally from dust. (His wife does not wear a head covering.)
Hendi, noting that Yahya in English is John, as in John the Baptist, was 10 years old during the Arab/Israeli conflict -- "a time of blood and hate, rejection and extremism" -- when he developed an interest in religion.
"It was because of my mother. She taught me to love, to reach out, to connect, to build bridges, not to hate," he said with tears in his eyes. "I live with the legacy of my mother, my mother's spirit, her teachings and personality. Mothers can do the impossible when they do the right thing."
Hendi completed his undergraduate studies and became an imam in Jordan. Then he came to America "to complete the circle."
"I wanted Christians to tell me how they understand Jesus. You fear that which you do not know. To confront that fear, I have to get to know those I don't know. To be a Muslim, you have to believe in Jesus, believe that Jesus is coming back at the end of time to establish the kingdom of peace and justice on Earth."
He noted that Messiah is an Arab word; that Mary is mentioned 17 times in the Bible, but 34 times in the Koran; and that Jesus is mentioned in the Koran 95 more times than Mohammad.
Hendi, a U.S. citizen for about 20 years, received a master's degree in comparative religion and Muslim/Christian relations from Hartford (Conn.) Seminary and a doctorate in comparative religions from Temple University. He retired three years ago after 17 years as the Muslim chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. He is a member of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America.
He was named one of the world's 500 most influential Muslims by the Amman, Jordan-based Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in 2012.
Hendi said former President Bill Clinton called him "a milestone in the history of religious pluralism in the United States." Besides Clinton, he also has met with former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
On Friday, he spoke about the role of clergy in pushing for an agenda of diversity and pluralism, offering guidelines for inter-religious dialogue and how to use it for social and political harmony.
"For me, one of the things I do is build bridges. I also want my fellow Americans not to be afraid of Islam. Extremists do not speak for Muslims. They were not educated theologically. … Islam is about mercy, compassion, forgiveness, grace and respect for others."
For more information, email YahyaHendi@gmail.com or go to www.ClergyBeyondBorders.org or Clergy Beyond Borders or Yahya N Hendi on Facebook.
nImam promotes inter-religious dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims as part of Franklin & Marshall's "Multi-faith Week of Meaning and Culture."