Face to face

Yesterday four or five students wandered into the foyer of Oasis with Thay, the Buddhist chaplain. It was lunchtime, so I offered some soup, left over from Tuesday’s chaplains’ lunch. Thay had some bread and some salad, so between us, we had a nice spread for half a dozen.

Maureen Howland, our Executive Secretary, had also dropped in, coming from her Indonesian class. I was amazed when she told me that one of the students with Thay was the Secretary of the Overseas Christian Fellowship (OCF). I had been emailing her back and forth over the last weeks to try to solve a room booking problem. Maureen knew her because they were in the same Indonesian Studies class. Now here we were, face to face!

When Ramadan begins, the Muslim community at Flinders needs a space for evening prayer together. But the Overseas Christian Fellowship (OCF) had always met and utilized all parts of the Oasis centre, every Friday night.

Last year we had asked OCF to move to another venue. They relunctantly agreed, but it wasn’t very satisfactory for them. This year there are major renovations going on, so alternative spaces are limited. If OCF felt put out last year, this year they were probably more anxious.

After negotiating with representatives of each group, I thought I had found a good compromise. OCF would forgo the smaller of the two main rooms, which might be just big enough for the Muslims to squeeze into.

I was keen to see how this had worked out last Friday night on the eve of Ramadan. So first thing Monday morning I sent an enquiring email to both groups.

I discovered from OCF that some Muslims had arrived early. There was some confusion over who was entitled to use the bigger room, where the Muslims had gathered earlier in the day for their Friday Prayer and assumed they were using the same room that night. But they seemed to have worked it out.

So the emails continued and I suggested that the two leaders might meet. On Wednesday I left a voice message with Turki, The President of the Islamic Students Association (FUISA), who is undertaking a PhD in Education. He is a Saudi and I wanted to talk with him about the Saudi students, who were also meeting in the centre, but separately, earlier than FUISA.

When you have large groups, with strong religious or ethnic identities, who have never met, vying for limited space, you have all the ingredients for conflict!

Yesterday, just as we were about to eat, Turki arrived. So Maureen, Turki and the Secretary of OCF retired with me to my office to talk.

We had an historic meeting, with firm but friendly conversation for over an hour. OCF thought they had a way to go for some of their members to accept the presence of Muslims in the same building. Turki decided that FUISA would invite OCF to an Iftar meal(breaking of the fast) during Ramadan.

If they could pull this off, it would be remarkable!

As I think about it, many pieces of the Oasis jigsaw were needed to bring us to this point. The friendship of the Buddhist chaplain with the OCF Secretary brought her into the centre, Maureen’s friendship as a classmate affirmed her. My friendship with the Muslim President provided the context for him to respond immediately to my voice message to come to see me. It turned out to be just the right moment!

And we were able to share the vision of Oasis together, a vision for a world relating harmoniously with each other.

I had a very late, but satisfying lunch!

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