Meer Husain remembers being 10 years old when violence broke out in India and Pakistan.
At the time, Hindus and Muslims began to kill each other in his native country, which later became Bangladesh.
Husain’s father, a religious scholar and a Muslim, used his position to protect Hindus from the violence. Husain said he remembered sharing the family’s food – cooked to break the Ramadan fast – with the people protected in their home.
“We grew up with Hindus, Buddhists, Christians,” Husain told a group of people gathered around a table at the Rev. Sam Muyskens’ home. “We are all human beings, whatever our religion, whatever our choices.”
About 150 people gathered around 16 tables at homes across Wichita on Tuesday night for the Beyond Tolerance Dinner Dialogues, sometimes sitting beside strangers, people of other religions or other races.
“One of the most difficult things we’ll have to do tonight is listen,” Muyskens told the group gathered in his home before passing out a set of questions. Muyskens, a United Methodist minister and one of the founders of the Beyond Tolerance movement, moderated one of the tables.
Each person answered a question while others listened. Questions dealt with race, human dignity, discrimination and more. All asked for people to describe their personal experiences.
The goal of the dinner was for people to learn and listen, growing to not only tolerate others who are different but to move “beyond tolerance” to a place of understanding and trust.
Sometimes laughter broke out during the dinner. At other times, voices shook as people shared deeply personal stories.
“Do we get passes?” asked Brenda Way, one of the participants, upon reading her first question.
Way, the founder of the Wichita Transgender Community Network, shared her story of growing up in a conservative home, then losing her family and wife when she came out as a transgender woman.
Way, who is deaf in one ear and only partially able to hear out of the other, said it is rare for her to be able to fully engage in a conversation with a group of people.
“This is very special to me,” she said as the evening ended. “This has been, since I lost my hearing in ’91, the most fulfilling social interaction I have ever had, because I can listen to your stories and I feel like I’ve been able to be a part of people’s lives that I haven’t been able to feel like that ever before, since ’91.”
While participants were required to just listen – and not to comment – during the structured questions, there was also time to simply chat. Some talked about the vegetarian meal, others about hobbies, others about the stories they had shared.
Christina Ohler, a Christian, said sharing experiences around the dinner table was a “safe place,” even though she and her husband had never met the other participants before that night.
“I feel like as we talk or share things, I realize there’s a lot more things that are in common than different between all of us, or at least I have the ability to find common things with each one of you,” she told the group.