Dinner and Dialogue at ADAMS

by Fiona Tomlin

In February when we launched our “SIV Sips” at Starbucks locations around the country, our idea was simple: Let’s bring veterans and refugees together for coffee and conversation. These neighborly gatherings are bringing a range of follow-on opportunities for deeper dialogue and community building, and we’ve met some amazing people along the way. Hurunnessa Fariad is one of them. She serves as the Outreach/Interfaith Coordinator at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center.  

Last week, Hurunnessa generously invited the VFAI cohort in the DC area for a meet and greet dinner with ADAMS members, especially the members of her congregation who are veterans and active duty service members. 

We got to know one another, shared stories, and enjoyed some delicious Afghan food. It was a welcome opportunity to slow down, to take time away from the distractions of our busy lives, and to focus on the vital work of building bridges.

As we sat together around the table, we listened and shared personal accounts of where public and private lives meet. Many talked about how living their faith was complementary to serving their country.

One veteran detailed his experience of starting a new job, where he encountered warmth and acceptance: his new colleagues went above and beyond his humble request for a prayer space by furnishing a quiet room just for him.

Another shared that his nuanced identity sometimes feels splintered between two worlds: his decision to join the Air Force confused some members of his faith, and his time in uniform was met with both casual discrimination and a few instances of overt racism from outside.

But a Muslim chaplain shared a vignette that resonated with each and every one present.

He talked about working on a small base where there was only one place of worship. Before laying down their prayer rugs, the Muslim worshippers cleared out the mobile pews left from Catholic mass, and then line them back up for Methodist services that followed. The space was kept sacred for each faith, and open to all.

The dinner was a reminder of our shared experiences, particularly among people of faith. We believe in the power of worship, but we might disagree about the issues of the day. We share the value of community, but every congregation has its challenges and idiosyncrasies. I left, inspired by our new friends’ vulnerability, honesty, generosity, and patriotism.

It was also a reminder that we as a nation have a long way to go—that ignorance is alive and well. When our political leaders spout Islamophobic rhetoric and ignore our heritage as a nation of immigrants, it defames our national character and fractures our unity as a people.

 Steve Miska, one of our VFAI leaders, likes to say, “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.” We must continue to make time for one another and for honest dialogue. Solidarity can go a long way, but without candid, meaningful conversations, the healing we so badly need is out of reach. Last week I caught a glimpse of that healing and it inspired me to share it with you.

Fiona Tomlin is a Researcher and Advocate at Veterans for American Ideals, a project of Human Rights First.