September 21, 2019

Prayer, Politics Not Enough to Unite World

Pope Francis waves as he attends the Festival of Families at Croke Park during his visit to Dublin. Vatican Media/via REUTERS

Travel brings with it the wonder of new adventures and the potential for new relationships. My recent trip to Rome provided that and much more as I shared conversation and prayer with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. I left that moving encounter more hopeful than ever that if we forge a new spirit of generous engagement, a new way of listening and a new commitment to working together, we can conquer the discrimination, religious bigotry and ideological blinders that lead to much of the hatred and violence that stains our world today.

My journey began with a trip to Azerbaijan as a member of a small U.S. delegation to meet with international political, social and spiritual leaders committed to building a world of inclusion and forging a counter-narrative to violent extremism. Our first stop was the fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, of which the motto for this year was “Building dialogue into action against discrimination, inequality and violent conflict.” Is there a more worthy goal at this time in human history?

Azerbaijan is more than 96 percent Muslim and in the great Heydar Mosque in Baku, Shias and Sunnis pray side by side under one roof. The country’s culture and political system are devotedly secular, and the sincere desire to be inclusive of all faiths and ethnicities is palpable at every level of society. Sitting at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Russia border Azerbaijan. The country’s wish to cultivate peaceful coexistence is a necessity for this small republic’s survival in such a volatile part of the world. It also is a powerful model for the region.

At the heart of this country’s quest to unify is a practical willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue with those from other religious and cultural backgrounds. The political, spiritual and social justice leaders whom I met understood that honest dialogue is not merely a step toward formal conflict resolution but is a fundamental necessity in a world in which “the other” most often is defined through third-party sources and reflexive biases.

“Honest dialogue is not merely a step 

toward formal conflict resolution but is a fundamental necessity.”

From Baku, my colleague Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez and I were off to Rome for a meeting in the Vatican and the possibility of an audience with the pope. Bishop Mendez and I were escorted past thousands to seats of honor beside the papal platform. Pope Frances addressed and blessed the throngs of people gathered and then, to my surprise, Bishop Mendez and I were invited to meet the pope.

Pope Francis and I held each other’s hands, then we drew closer, holding each other’s forearms as we spoke about a world in desperate need of unity. I thanked Pope Francis for his leadership and solidarity, especially in combating the rising tides of global anti-Semitism. Toward the conclusion of our conversation, I asked the pope if I could offer him a Hebrew blessing from the Torah. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. At that moment, my heart opened wide, I closed my eyes and spoke words said in synagogue and church for millennia: “May God bless you and protect you. May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.”

There we were, two men of faith, holding one another, heads bowed, united in body, conversation, prayer and blessing. In that moment, we stood, Pope Francis and I, as one.

That electrifying experience left me more determined and hopeful than ever that our answers lie not in praying to the heavens nor to our politicians, but in reaching our arms out to one another — just as Pope Francis and I did — and embracing each other as individuals and communities without bias. Only then can we rekindle our relationships and build a better world based on sacred and vital respect. If not now, when?


Rabbi Ron Li-Paz is the spiritual leader of Valley Outreach Synagogue & Center for Jewish Life, and is a member of the Los Angeles Interfaith Council.