When I was in seminary I was part of an inter-faith working group. We met three or four times a week and we were charged with finding ways to problem solve and work together. Well, sort of. When I was in Seminary I worked at a distribution center for the Dayton‟s department store. Within this enormous warehouse we were separated into teams
charged with the responsibility of processing various goods to be sent out to the stores. This meant occasionally we would have to figure out what to do when all the boxes were filled with pink table clothes when they were sup- posed to be blue, or worse yet when the boxes weren‟t tablecloths at all, but instead were filled with cutting boards . On my team was an Islamic man in his mid-forties named Hamid, a Jewish woman in her early sixties named Kathryn and me, a seminary student in his early twenties studying to be a Lutheran pastor. Without question I learned as much from these two people about what it means to be a pastor than I did from any one class I took in seminary.
Hamid was Iranian, though at first he tried to convince me he was Italian. His father and one of his brothers still lived in Iran while Hamid lived in St. Paul with his mother and sister. Hamid was not married and did not have any children. But he did have nieces and nephews upon whom he showered his attention and love. Almost daily he would show me pictures and tell me stories of them. I do not remember all the details but I know that there are certain holy days within the Islamic year in which children tradi- tionally receive gold coins as gifts. Most of the time Hamid would shower them with the chocolate variety, but every so often he would give them actual gold coins. I asked how long it would take for me to be counted as one of his nephews. He would just laugh.
Kathryn worked because it got her out of the house and gave her something to do, though she would say that she only worked because of the discount employees received. Her two daughters were grown and moved out of the house, her husband had a successful business, but it required him to travel often. Working at the warehouse gave her interaction with people on days in which I think she would have normally sat at home alone.
As the weeks and months of working together progressed we would not only learn about each other and our families but we would have conversations about local and world events, politics, even religion and faith.
I remember coming to work the days after a bomb went off in the parking garage of the then World Trade Center. Many cars were damaged, some people were injured, and I even think a few people were killed. A radical Islamic group claimed responsibility. I remember while walking to our corner of the warehouse Hamid asked me if I still wanted to work with him. I thought it was a strange question to ask, but then again I was not an Islamic man. “Did you have anything to do with the bombings?” I light heartedly asked. “No.” he responded. “Then let‟s get to work.” But in the following days I overheard conversations others were having with each
other. Most of them usually contained words to the effect, “It would be a lot easier if we just got rid of all of them.” And if I heard them, I am sure that Hamid heard them. And if I left those conversations wondering what they meant by “getting rid” of them, my guess is he did too.
There was one time near the end of September that Kathryn came into work and asked Hamid and me to forgive her. Not having any idea what she was talking about, she went on to ask us to forgive her for the times during the previous year in which she gossiped and spoke “ill-will” either against us or other people in the warehouse. While we couldn‟t remember her doing that, Kathryn did. And she then took us aside to recall the times in which she “gossiped” about people. Later that night she explained that this is something she does every year as part of her ritual for what was the upcoming Jewish day of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur also known as the Day of Atonement, it is one of, if not the most important of the Jewish holidays. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. For many Jews the days leading up to Yom Kippur are a time of honest reflection and confession. To this day I remember Kathryn asking us to forgive her for calling our boss a “blow-hard” throughout the previous year. The fact that he was in fact a “blow-hard” did not seem to matter.
After working together for almost two years I remember the day in which for some unknown reason we were talking about what happens after we die. Hamid asked me point blank whether I thought that he and Kathryn were „saved.‟ “Saved?” I asked. “You know, do you think Kathryn and I will be in heaven?” I know that I was taught throughout my life to tell him that unless they confess a faith in Jesus Christ that the answer is “no.” But the longer I hesitated in answering him the more I wondered about what it meant to be saved, what it meant to go to heaven, and what it would say about me if I was honest. That is, what would it mean if I said, “I don‟t know.” We talked for awhile about what we each believed about heaven. Then Kathryn con- cluded by saying, “I don‟t know where and what heaven is like, but I do know that it wouldn‟t be heaven unless you both were with me.”
Except for an occasional card and note around Christmas I had not heard from Hamid or Kathryn in almost 12 years. Shortly after I graduated from seminary, Dayton‟s changed to Marshall Field‟s and then was bought out by Macy‟s. The work we did at the warehouse in St. Paul was sent to a different warehouse in an- other state, and we all went our separate ways. A few years ago I received a note from Kathryn that included an obituary from the newspaper. Hamid was killed in a car accident. Kathryn‟s note simply said, “I guess Hamid is getting heaven ready for the rest of us.”