San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis had read books on Islam and met with its leaders. But it was sitting in people's living rooms, breaking bread, when his education really began, he told a group of interfaith leaders Tuesday to celebrate the opening of a new Islamic center.
Davis spoke at Tuesday's celebration of the Graduate Theological Union's new Center for Islamic Studies. The Berkeley center hopes to increase understanding between Islam and other faiths through academic study and religious practice.
Davis, who earned a standing ovation for his talk, was honored for his decision to fast during Ramadan in 2004 so he could better empathize with the local Muslim community.
Leaders must leave their comfort zones if they hope to invoke change, Davis said.
"We have a responsibility of not sitting in this room," Davis said, standing in uniform before a lunchtime audience that included Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. "We have a responsibility to get out there."
Throughout the day, speakers on panels stressed the importance of rising above platitudes.
"How can we go beyond mere talk and make an impact on this world?" asked Ameena Jandali of the San Jose-based Islamic Networks Group.
Some panel speakers emphasized the power of actions - fighting homelessness, improving the environment - to bridge communities and find common ground. Others spoke of the relationships built by talking face-to-face.
The point, they said, is not to convert or merely tolerate each other - but to appreciate the differences each religion offers. Understanding those differences would strengthen their own faith, speakers said.
One key mission of the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of seminaries, is to prepare future leaders for the world. "And the reality of our world today is pluralism and diversity," union President James Donahue said.
It was in the interest of understanding and reaching out to his multi-cultural city that Davis decided to fast. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said, there was a spike in hate crimes, mainly against Sikhs who were mistaken for Muslims.
At the time, Muslims seemed "mysterious" to him, he admitted. So he began meeting with local Muslims, eventually attending Eid celebrations at the end of the Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. After his third Eid, he realized he couldn't fully appreciate the celebration unless he fasted, too.
He was familiar with fasting - as a Mormon he fasts the first Sunday of every month and donates the money he would have spent on meals to the poor. But he gained new insights after fasting sunrise to sunset for a month, breaking the fast each day in the home of a different Muslim family.
Fasting is a spiritual practice in both faiths, but those house visits were also illuminating.
He heard fathers ask children about their homework, negotiate who would pay the car insurance after a teenager got his license, or ask daughters about that boy who came over.
"It was just another American family," he said, adding that he was embarrassed he had previously thought Muslims would be different. (MORE)