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Hospitality a centerpiece of YDS Christian-Muslim conference

By Jason Peno, M.Div. ’10

There were reporters from over 20 domestic and international media outlets.  Protection came from two police departments augmented by special security guards.  And the guest list included over 150 participants from some three-dozen countries.  Indeed, the sheer magnitude, complexity and visibility of the July 24-31 Christian/Muslim conference hosted by Yale Divinity School made it a particularly significant event in the life of YDS—not to mention the impact it had on interfaith relations.

Normally the last week in July is a relatively quiet time for Yale Divinity School, but this year it proved to be one of the busiest in recent memory.

Mirza and SapersteinBehind the scenes of the eight-day conference, staff and a small army of volunteers worked together to provide a hospitable environment for a diverse array of guests—each with his or her own passport, dietary and religious needs—who came to New Haven from Algeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, Egypt, Germany, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Nigeria, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, and many other spots around the globe.  The conference, entitled Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed, was organized by the Reconciliation Program of YDS’s Center for Faith and Culture and ended in a declaration calling for a sustained Christian-Muslim dialogue.  [Click here for wrap-up story on the conference or to view videos of the conference.]

Special prayer areas were set up for participants, along with ceremonial washing stations for Muslim guests, and female conference workers were encouraged to dress conservatively. “We had an exceptional group of volunteers that ranged from Divinity School students, spouses of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture staff, students from Hartford Seminary, a local organization called Pathways for Mutual Respect, and the Elm City Vineyard Church,” said Amanda Ogden, a member of the conference staff.

International guests arriving for the eight-day gathering typically got their first taste of conference hospitality at the airport. The conference’s travel specialist, Lindsay Cleveland ’08 M.Div., explained, “We were able to compile a list of all of the guests and their specific flight itineraries and then Homeland Security had a representative at the airport greet them at the door once the plane landed and escort them through Immigration and Customs. Everyone then came off the plane, through to one of our people, who picked them up, and said they were so happy, and it just far exceeded their expectations.”

To ensure that all participants could follow the proceedings, professional translators were brought in, and all sessions could be heard, with the help of special wireless transmitters, in both English and Arabic.

Dean Harold Attridge believes the efforts at providing a hospitable atmosphere paid off:  “In formal and informal settings the participants explored new ways of building bridges across traditional religious divisions. Muslim participants commented frequently on the warm hospitality that they experienced at Yale.

“The connections that were established in this environment will be reinforced at similar conferences during the coming year in Europe and the Middle East, and, we fervently hope, will help to create new forms of collaboration and new possibilities for peace in troubled parts of our world.”

Estimated overall costs for the conference were about $850,000, but an anonymous donor carried the major share of expenses, putting up $500,000.  In addition to the support from YDS and the Reconciliation Program, financial assistance was also forthcoming from the offices of Yale President Richard Levin, University Secretary Linda Lorimer, and from the Kemp Fund administered by Provost Andrew Hamilton.

Security was a top priority. Dark-suited security guards as well as uniformed officers from the Yale and New Haven police departments transformed the YDS Quad, where the first half of the gathering took place, and the Law School, where the second half was held.  Those precautions did not seem excessive when, during the course of the conference, al-Qaeda issued a statement condemning Christian-Muslim dialogue following a similar conference that had just ended in Madrid.

“Our hope was that security was handled effectively, but in the most hospitable way possible toward both guests and faculty, staff, and students,”Ogden and another conference staffer, Melissa Yarrington, said in a joint

Police were stationed at virtually every possible entryway to insure that entrance to each building was limited to one location. From there, any visitors were then required to show their school ID or security badge, and allow security to search any bags they might be carrying. Sven Ensminger ’08 M.A.R., who headed up badge operations, said, “All badges had to have pictures on them, which proved to be quite challenging. We ended up taking at least an additional 50 photos at registration.”

YDS facilities were especially well suited for the more intimate workshop phase of the conference, organizers said. “The Divinity School served as the perfect setting for the workshop portion of this event, which brought together a smaller group of scholars.  The presentations took place in Niebuhr Hall, and the Jonathan Edwards Dining Hall was transformed into a hospitality suite and gathering place for guests,” observed Ogden and Yarrington.

Another way Yale extended the hand of friendship was through clothing.  Said Cleveland, “For me, I willingly dressed closer to Muslim standards of modesty, motivated by neighbor love for them and respect for their own convictions. And we’ve received positive comments from guests about how nice we look and others have said how grateful they are that we show respect for them through our clothing.”

Special prayer rooms for both Muslims and Christians were always open to guests who sought a place of worship. Cleansing stations were to be found in the shade of trees outside, or inside, strategically placed near the prayer rooms. A prayer team interceded throughout the conference, asking for God’s blessing and guidance for the group and praying on behalf of any participants who requested a prayer.

The food that was provided also enriched the overall atmosphere of the conference. From dinner on the Quad, to restaurants downtown, to snacking stations filled with fruit, drinks nuts and pastries, food was in plentiful supply. Saray Turkish Restaurant, La Cuisine Caterers, Jordan Catering, Yale Catering, and Claire’s Corner Copia provided food. 

A trip for all participants to Lyman Orchards in Middletown that included peach and blueberry picking along with a sunflower maze was just one of many occasions that provided opportunities to make deep and meaningful connections, relax in the company of families, and dig deeper into the issues presented during the day.

It was not only the guests who were enriched by the conference. In some cases, volunteers themselves were greatly affected by its interfaith dimensions, even though they were there primarily to serve, not to participate.  Carolyn Cary, moderator of Spring Glen Church (UCC) in nearby Hamden, CT, said, “I loved being part of it.  It truly just enlarged my world and whet my appetite for more.”

Revised 9/22/08.

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