Five years ago the Carroll County community lost one of its pillars of humanity, a peace maker and bridge builder, an advocate for the poor, the oppressed, mistreated and ostracized, a fighter for and champion of human rights and dignity.
Ira G. Zepp, who died in August 2009, was a friend, a neighbor, a confident and, above all, in the true sense of the word a Mensch. He was a teacher who didn't teach, a minister who didn't preach, a friend who didn't ask for anything in return for his friendship. He was a compassionate listener with deep, curious and caring eyes and gentle, comforting hands.
After the tragedy of September 11, Ira and I found solace in interfaith dialogue and exchange of ideas. He and I attended many interfaith events at churches, community centers, schools and colleges. One day we were in the car on route to one of these events in Silver Spring. He asked me what I would say if I were to summarize what Muslims believe in a few sentences. I thought about this for a while, and was unable to give him an answer. He then said: "Read Verse 177 of Chapter 2 in the Holy Qur'an." It was no wonder that he asked me to read this exact verse at his memorial service on August 29, 2009.
This Ayah, or verse, summarizes not only what all Muslims should believe, but also what Ira believed and how he lived his life. "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards East or West; but it is righteousness to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Books, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in time of misfortune and hardship and in time of peril, Such are the people of truth, the God fearing."
Over the years Ira taught me many things, I would like to share a few of them on the fifth anniversary of his passing. These are not just platitudes or bon-bons for conversations over a glass of wine or a cup of tea. They are the golden rules of intercultural understanding and any civilized dialogue.
1. Questions unite and answers divide.
2. Don't ask of another a question you are not prepared to ask yourself.
3. Compare the best with the best, worse with worse, ideal with ideal, practice with practice.
4. Try to distinguish religion from culture; faith from practice; ethics from doctrine.
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5. If you think you have the truth, you'll never know the truth when it comes.
6. I want to see the error in my truth and the truth in the other's error.
7. We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.
8. "The more I get to know you, the more of myself I see in you and the less strange you are to me." (by Rabbi Jacob Neusner)
9. A fish never discovers water. Learning requires a trip, travelling, getting "outside our box." This helps us to see the eye through which we see.
10. "If you never travel, you think your mother is the best and only cook." (African proverb)
Ira left a vacuum behind, Many are trying and will continue to try to fill his shoes. I, and others, miss him dearly. He was a mentor, a friend, a companion and, above all, a dear Christian brother. May God bless his soul and that of his beloved wife, Mary. To him I say: Don't worry about us. Enjoy the better place you are in right now.