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This Friendship Is No Joke

I chuckled when I read, “A rabbi, a priest and a minister walked into a bar. The bartender said, ‘Is this a joke?'” Well, it was no joke for me on May 29, 2005. The setting was not a bar, but the home of Rabbi Stephen Chaim Listfield in Montgomery, Ala.

Since 1972 I had served the Pintlala Baptist Church and had never thought of interacting with Montgomery’s Jewish community until Robert Parham of the Nashville-based Baptist Center for Ethics challenged board members to do so. I thought he was nuts.

With the focused voice of a prophet, Parham led the BCE board to plan and promote a luncheon slated for June of 2004 in order to promote friendship between the Baptist and Jewish communities.

The luncheon, which proved to be successful by any standard, was to be held in Birmingham during the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. My leadership role on the BCE board, and Parham’s persistence to bring healing to an ever-widening breach between two religions and two cultures, pushed me to the edge of discomfort.

So one morning in the spring of 2004 I took a deep breath, swallowed hard and sent a carefully worded email to Rabbi Steve Listfield of the Agudath Israel Synagogue suggesting we meet for coffee. We talked by phone.

Rabbi Listfield had every right to be suspicious given the climate of moral arrogance often demonstrated by Baptist leaders. We agreed to meet for coffee at Montgomery’s Barnes and Noble bookstore. The die was cast for a flourishing and famous friendship. I have often regretted not having stock in Starbucks.

The consumption of coffee and hours of delicious conversation, however, had not prepared me for the unusual invitation Rabbi Listfield extended to my wife, Jerrie, and me. Would we join him and his wife, Leslie, at their home for a cook-out on Sunday evening of Memorial Day week-end?

No evening services for the Pintlala Baptist Church certainly provided an open date on May 29 of last year. Anyway I was very curious to know what a Jewish rabbi would be cooking on the outdoor grill.

Dr. Kenneth Wool, a cardiologist and a member of Listfield’s synagogue, and Father David Tokarz of St. Bede Roman Catholic Church were on hand.

Late in the afternoon a storm system had swept through the area and had caused a power outage in the neighborhood. Darkness descended on the balmy evening as we enjoyed a delectable meal together. In the quasi-darkness, around the meal table, a rabbi, a priest and a minister talked. And it was no joke. Two hours later we emerged with authentic friendships transcending theological and cultural differences.

I used to worry about what my Baptist friends would think about this wonderful rabbi and our devotion to each other. Neither Rabbi Listfield nor I have compromised our theology, our approach to matters of faith.

Montgomery, Ala., would be greatly deficient without Steve Listfield and his leadership. And I would be severely diminished as a person.

Do I still worry? Not any more. When Steve Listfield talks, he brings intellectual stimulation and laughter to conversation. He is caring and compassionate, warm and embracing. Give up this friendship? Those are fighting words. I have repented often for the insular life I had lived for so many years.

Thanks, Robert Parham.

Gary Burton is pastor of Pintlala Baptist Church and a former member of BCE’s board of directors.