When Irem Khan was in high school, she volunteered to support a new effort in her community. The year was 2007. And the plan was simple: invite people from different faiths to dinner, in celebration of the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
"A lot of Muslims felt that they needed to be able to explain that we're normal, like everyone else, and we're a part of this community," said Khan, a Pakistani American, born and raised in Memphis.
But what she experienced at the dinner that year transcended the opportunity to counter stereotypes, she said.
"It gave us an avenue to have conversations with people, not just to tell them about our religion and faith and our traditions and beliefs, but also to learn so much from them — and just learn that we're actually so alike," Khan said.
As she grew into adulthood, so did the community's new annual tradition.
Having outgrown its initial elementary school setting, the 13th annual Memphis Interfaith Ramadan dinner filled a 500-person banquet hall in Cordova on Sunday. Including 130 designated hosts from the Muslim American community, the diverse crowd gathered around tables filled with dates and water, that largely went untouched until sundown.
Muslims who observe Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, abstain from food and water from daybreak until sunset. Fasting is an integral part of the holiday, in which restraint and increased spirituality, self-reflection and generosity are intertwined, said Dr. Abdul Alim Khandekar.
A cardiovascular surgeon who moved to Memphis in 1975, Khandekar has been the guiding force behind the interfaith dinner.
During Ramadan, he said, "we try to be more mindful of what we do, what we say. We also see that millions of people around the world are suffering. They don't have enough to eat. By fasting we can at least relate to some of their sufferings."
The intention to relate to others also fueled his desire to build fellowship among faith communities in Memphis.
"Ramadan is also a time for reaching out," Khandekar said. "We feel like one of the problems we have among different ethnic groups is that we don't know enough about each other," he said.
Or, as Khan sums up: "We're trying to make the world a better place, one friendship at a time."
There is no 'other'
Speeches from religious leaders and conversations among Jews, Christians and Muslims filled the hall in the two hours leading up to the sunset dinner.
At one table, Collierville Methodist pastor Birgitte French wondered how best to support other groups, expressing admiration for an interfaith coalition's recent demand that a judge who promoted xenophobic articles be censured.
At another table, longtime University of Memphis staffer Reza Chowdhury talked with the Rev. Anne Apple of Idlewild Presbyterian Church about monthly food donations the Midtown Mosque makes to 25-30 families who share the same ZIP code, a food desert.
And, at the front of the room, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, a repeat attendee, sat with the evening's speakers and the Khandekars.
"We're a very diverse city and we're celebrating our 200th birthday. And, I think that as we look forward to what we want to be: We want to be an inclusive, tolerant and understanding society," Strickland said. "And these kind of dinners help that."
One of the mayor's table mates, Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, said the interfaith fellowship has been "liberating and broadening."
"You're never the same again because no longer is that 'other' a stick figure. You begin to appreciate that there is no 'other,'" Greenstein said. The dinner represents what good religion is about, he added. "Religion that brings people together and gives people strength and hope, as opposed to religions that divide."
The divides outside of the banquet hall have been made painfully apparent in recent weeks, the Memphis Islamic Center's Sheikh Yasir Qadhi told the audience.
"We've seen a number of tragic attacks against mosques and synagogues," he said, mentioning a deadly shooting at a synagogue in California and a string of arsons in multiple cities.
One hit close to home, Qadhi said. "A mosque in New Haven, where I lived for five years when I was doing my Ph.D., was burnt to the ground."
The events are indicative of "the same cancer," said Greenstein, "whether it's a shooting at a mosque or a synagogue or a black church." And the message of every faith tradition ultimately offers the same cure, he said.
"Love wins," Greenstein said. "That's the message of Judaism and of all our faiths."
Faith in action
Describing the prophet Moses as a hero to each of the religions represented, Qadhi ended his speech with a call to stand up "for the weak, for the oppressed."
"You have to have that figure like Moses, to stand up for the truth," Qadhi said, citing the famous words, "Let my people go", attributed to the prophet.
The Rev. Stacy Spencer, senior pastor of New Direction Christian Church, described what faith in action might concretely look like, sharing the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope's platform on Education, Economic and Intercultural Equity.
As Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner looked on, Spencer demanded the decommercialization of the justice system and advocated for police accountability and programs to assist former prisoners.
"Freedom is a high priority for persons from Abrahamic and other faiths, based on God's call to each of us," Spencer said. "Exploitation of the most vulnerable in society by those with wealth and power is condemned in all of our faith conditions."
Given Memphis' singular civil rights history, Rev. Dorothy Sanders Wells said the message resonated. "For a city that has labored under this very heavy cloud of the place where Dr. King was assassinated, I'd like to think that the thing that comes from that is (his) sense of action," she said.
Courage and friendship
Acting on faith takes courage, said the Rev. Steve Stone, the retired Methodist pastor of Cordova's Heartsong Church, who was also present at the dinner.
In a turn of events the pastor considers "one of the greatest blessings" of his life, Stone made a decision in 2010 that became emblematic of interfaith values.
That year, mosque construction plans faced opposition around the country — and two Middle Tennessee towns were flash points. A billboard had gone up in Murfreesboro, attempting to block an Islamic center's construction. And, in Brentwood, plans to build a mosque had recently been defeated.
Upon reading that the Memphis Islamic Center purchased 30 acres next to his church, Stone prayed on what Jesus would do — and promptly ordered a six-foot-wide reading, "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood".
And, that Ramadan, while the mosque was under construction, Heartsong invited their Muslim neighbors to use the church for prayer.
"If you're going to try to overcome fear and stick out your hand and make a relationship, that takes courage," Stone said.
But the work doesn't end there, he added. "You have to stick with it. And you have to listen more than you talk."
Stone has since made interfaith fellowship the focal point of his retirement, working as the executive director of the Memphis Friendship Foundation. Dr. Bashar Shala of the Memphis Islamic Center is the board president.
Nearly a decade after the mosque's land purchase next to the church, the two are now seeking a new plot of land, together, to create a "Friendship Park" dedicated to "play, cooperative experiences and human interchange."
Community in the 901
From the city's civil rights legacy to its beloved institution of basketball, Memphis culture has shaped local interfaith organizing in more ways than one.
A second-generation Palestinian American, Sameer Mansour organizes an interfaith basketball league as director of the group 901 Ummah. Before emceeing the interfaith dinner, he and his sister, Sally Mansour, recalled ways Memphis has lent to their sense of belonging.
The city initiative Muslims in Memphis, said Sally Mansour, "made me proud of who I am and able to represent to myself."
Her brother added, "The community is just different. It's very close. Everyone's supportive of each other, not just in the Muslim community — that's Memphis in general."
Looking back on his decades in the city, Khandekar said his path to founding the interfaith dinner wasn't without challenges. But he has high hopes for Memphis' future.
"When we know each other, we don't have misconceptions about each other. Knowing each other is a strong determinant about where we want to go," he said.