The Abraham Conference this year was held, via Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions, on Sunday 15 November where Jewish, Christians and Muslim frontline workers shared their stories of hardship and hope under these uncertain times.
More than 85 people joined a livestream on Zoom to hear three representatives of the Abrahamic traditions share stories of their work in healthcare during the pandemic. In addition, there were over 300 views on other media platforms.
The overarching theme that emerged from the event, as summarised by the conference’s moderator, former ABC broadcaster and author Rachael Kohn AO, was “an immense degree of hope”.
Grounded in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, hope is a powerful value and perspective, Rachael said, as it motivates us to serve human beings as they are – sacred and special. Examples of this hope in action flowed from the speakers’ stories.
The Jewish speaker, social worker Renata Ieremias of Jewish Care, reflected on how COVID-19 exacerbated existing complex and challenging experiences of her clients.
With the onset of the pandemic, people already suffering illness, poverty, disability, abuse, grief, trauma, loss and discrimination, were now met with unemployment and severe financial hardship, increased risks of domestic violence, homelessness, poor mental health, and isolation.
Renata and her 300 colleagues had to mobilise Jewish Care’s resources to respond to COVID as if it were a crisis centre. It brought to the fore just how vulnerable some members of the community are regardless of the pandemic.
Ethicist Dr Dan Fleming of St Vincent’s Health, which has its home in the tradition of Catholic Christianity, reflected on challenging ethical questions unique to the pandemic, namely the allocation of limited resources such as ventilators or ICU beds.
As COVID-19 rapidly spread throughout the world, stories emerged of critical medical resources being allocated to COVID-infected patients in accordance with age, wealth or a person’s “social worth”.
For St Vincent’s Health, whose ethical commitment is rooted in the equal dignity of all people, it became clear that they had to respond to this challenging dilemma with a rigorous framework upheld by this commitment.
Dan highlighted that a faith-based medical response to a public health crisis is a hopeful one, because it goes beyond utilitarian responses to healthcare to offer something “true, good and beautiful”, such as how to serve the homeless and ensure that nobody dies alone during this dark time.
The conference’s Muslim speaker, medical hospitalist Dr Haroon Kasim, spoke of how the religious value of empathy can help us to understand each other better and thereby create a more compassionate, inclusive and diverse world.
He shared his own learning of empathy as a junior medical doctor through witnessing a specialist treat a particularly challenging hospital patient with a terminal illness.
Rather than simply offer the patient pain medication or empty reassurances, the specialist sat next to the patient, looked into her eyes and asked about her troubles. A tirade by the fearful patient ensued. The specialist listened.
Then the specialist addressed the patient by stating that he did not know how it feels to have a terminal illness but that he would help her in any way he could because she matters, and she matters till the last moment of her life.
The key to such empathy, learned Haroon, was an interpersonal connection of their humanity, spurred by the specialist’s humble acknowledgement of his limits in understanding his patient’s experience of dying. It was honest, relatable and gratuitous.
The lesson for Haroon was understanding the needs of his patients not through medical science but through empathy. “She was not a case,” said Haroon of the patient, “but a human first”.
An engaging Q&A followed, with Rachael Kohn posing questions to the three speakers, including those posted in the chat by the live audience.
The conference ended with gratitude for all the frontline workers who are serving people in these challenging times, the hope that the pandemic will end soon, and the conviction that the works of faith and love must endure for a more compassionate future.
This year’s Abraham Conference Coordinating Committee consists of representatives from Affinity Intercultural Foundation; the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations; the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies; the Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of NSW & ACT; Australasian Muslim Times AMUST; the Diocese of Parramatta; the NSW Ecumenical Council; the Australian Egyptian Forum Council; and the Indian Crescent Society of Australia. Special thanks to Plus61J Media for hosting the zoom webinar.
The video, Abraham Conference 2020,’ Interfaith on the Frontlines’, is available to view at https://bit.ly/38Ir5CZ