A shiny red, mid-sized rental car pulled up to the curb and from it emerged a very tall, dark-skinned man with an off-white turban, long graying beard, and boyish smile. "Come my friend, let me help you with your bags. On a hot day like this, we can all use some help." With that, Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia whisked me off to the Kansas City airport.
I had come to the Midwest from my home in Boston to attend the annual NAIN (North American Interfaith Network) conference. Tarunjit, vice president of this grassroots organization, and a leader in the international Sikh community, had graciously volunteered to return me to the airport.
A wise and warm person, Tarunjit gently engaged me in meaningful conversation as soon as I settled into the car. We had a wonderful time together discussing the similarities and differences between our faith traditions and the issues facing each of our minority communities in the United States. Though we had just met at the conference, we went deep quickly. Before I knew it, we had arrived at the Kansas City airport.
Tarunjit kindly stepped out of the car into the humid summer air to help me with my bags and to say goodbye. Before parting company, I thanked him for the ride and for the conversation and gave my new friend a big hug (I come from a family of huggers). With that, I headed for the check-in counter.
I didn't communicate with Tarunjit again for several months. In December 2009, I traveled to Melbourne, Australia to speak at the Parliament of the World's Religions. One morning, as I walked through the crowded hallways of the conference center, I heard someone call my name. To my pleasant surprise, it was Tarunjit. After briefly catching up, he invited me to attend a session he was going to be speaking at the following day. "I will be sharing the end of our Kansas City story," he said with a mischievous grin. "You don't know it yet, but I promise it is interesting."
Intrigued by Tarunjit's enigmatic description of the conclusion of "our" story, I arrived early for his session the next day. When it was Tarunjit's turn to present he spoke passionately about his work with NAIN and other interfaith projects and ended by telling our airport tale.
"As Or gave me a hug, I noticed that two baggage handlers standing nearby were watching us, looking curiously at our embrace. After returning my car to the rental facility I walked past the airport doors where I had left Or and saw the two men still standing there. They smiled at me and said hello, and I reciprocated. Then one of the men commented on how interesting it was to see a Jew and a Muslim hug in public (they correctly identified Or's yarmulke as a Jewish head covering, but were clearly confused by my turban). At that moment I did not feel it was important to correct the mix-up between a Muslim and a Sikh, so I let it slide. And then the other baggage handler remarked, 'You are living the future today!' I smiled and walked away; they had gotten it right after all."
As Tarunjit finished his story the audience applauded. I, of course, got up from my seat, jogged to the front of the room, and gave him a hug.
I have thought about this story several times since hearing it in Melbourne, reflecting on the great strides we have made in the interfaith movement in recent decades (could my German Jewish grandparents have ever imagined engaging in mutually enriching dialogue with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs?); the enormous amount of work that still needs to be done in interfaith education, reconciliation, and peace-building (including teaching people about the differences between Sikhism and Islam); and the wisdom and decency of Tarunjit (knowing when to push things and when to let them "slide") and so many other people I have met in my work in this field over the last several years.
As I reflect on this story in the days before Passover--the season during which Jews throughout the world celebrate the blessing and promise of freedom--I am reminded once again that the fate of my community is inextricably bound up in the fate of all others. In the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., "We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny." Recognizing the interconnection of all life, people of faith must come together to help create a more just and compassionate world.
And you never know what a hug can do!