St. Petersburg Mayor’s Iftar Dinner: Opening Remarks

Religion itself is not peaceful or evil. Religion simply binds us together. And what we bring to that circle or to that community — our values, our beliefs, our skepticism, our devotion, our strengths and weaknesses, yes our baggage as well — what we bring to the religious experience, that is where religion informs and reinforces what we do, what we believe, how we act, how we serve, and how we treat one another.

As the president of Interfaith Tampa Bay, it is my responsibility to reinforce a certain set of beliefs. Those beliefs are that we can improve this world by engaging in dialogue with one another, by listening more than we speak, and assuaging fear wherever we find it. We believe that pluralism and spaces that allow for multiple voices, multiple perspectives, multiple cultures to be represented around the table, that that is where we will succeed — because we will find common ground, we will see ourselves in one another. We believe in speaking out against injustice wherever we find it and that non-violence is the best response. Those are the beliefs that we hold dear as members of Interfaith Tampa Bay.

Interfaith Tampa Bay began almost 30 years ago as the St. Petersburg Clergy Association — a small group of chaplains that met in the cafeteria at Bayfront Hospital, and then reformed and re-branded itself as the St. Petersburg Interfaith Association. Since then, the leadership that has driven the board of directors, the example that has been set for the community at their various events and services, the spirit that has been in the room at our meetings — has been inspiring. And I mean that in the truest sense of the Latin word, inspirare. It has given me breath at times that I have needed it the most. To think that I am now standing before you speaking on behalf of this amazing body of people is humbling. Because there’s no way one person can accomplish all of the work that needs to be done. Only a network of networks can do that. Only a community of communities can do that. Only people who are bound together by a similar set of beliefs can do that.

I would like to ask all of the members of Interfaith Tampa Bay to stand up. Board members past and present. Everyone who has been to one of our breakfast meetings or pot lucks or read a prayer at our Thanksgiving Service or our MLK Memorial or hosted an open house during Interfaith Week. Stand up.

Please give them a round of applause.

I would also like to ask every spiritual leader in the room to stand. Every imam, minister, rabbi, priest, reader, cantor, lector and chaplain. Stand up.

Please give them a round of applause.

These spiritual leaders are the ones doing the important work of leading by example. You are the ones calling for values, reason, hope, faith and wisdom. You are the ones holding your lantern up high so that everyone else can see while your own arm is falling asleep. You are the ones providing spiritual direction to those who are lost and in need or suffering, all while you yourself are dealing with the same political complexities, ethical contradictions and injustices in this world. We need to lean on each other.

We need to focus on charging our batteries so that we can rise to the inevitable occasion. We need to remain gentle with ourselves so that we may extend that same compassion to our neighbor. We need to prepare for the fact that the battle against prejudice and injustice may never end, but the fact that we fought it makes us (makes you) victorious. We need to speak a common language, we need to have each other’s backs (and each other’s phone numbers).

I pray that tonight’s meal gives us strength to go another round in this battle. And I hope that everyone gets a good night’s sleep and schedules a couple days off or at least a good massage. Self care, everyone.

I hope everyone makes three new friends tonight. And maybe even a play date for your kids. We need to deepen the bonds of community here, not just share a meal. This is not a photo opportunity. We are here because we all live together.

We’re here to focus on the bigger picture, and we’re in this for the long haul. And we need to continue to build the pluralistic world we keep preaching about.

Thank you for having me and on behalf of Interfaith Tampa Bay,

As-Salaam-Alaikum

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