If a picture is worth a thousand words, the sight of Abudullah Al lheeden of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Islamic Affairs -- resplendent in his traditional Arabic robe and headdress -- talking with Richard Marker, a Jew from New York wearing his yarmulke -- was worth a million.
"Meetings like this happen all the time," Marker said when I stopped to say hello and comment on the remarkable sight. "It just doesn't get in the press that often."
Meetings like that are certainly commonplace this week as people of different faith groups from around the world meet at the University of Winnipeg this week for the 2010 G8 World Religions Summit.
Since arriving at the summit, I have had a chance to talk to delegates from Rwanda, Japan, Russia, Zambia, India and across the United States and Canada. I have spoken with Hindus, evangelical Christians, Jews, Russian Orthodox, Lutherans, members of the United Church, Muslims, Mennonites, Baptists and more.
These informal encounters remind me that conversations like these, taking place in hallways, classrooms and over meals, are just as important -- maybe even more important -- than the official statements that will be released when the event is over.
Don't get me wrong: The summit's call for the world's richest nations to find ways to alleviate poverty, promote peace and security and ensure environmental sustainability are noble and needed; sometimes people need to gather to speak officially and with one voice. It's just that statements by themselves are meaningless unless people look for ways to make them real in their own lives, faith groups and countries.
As a friend said to me recently: "All theology must eventually become biography." Beliefs, creeds and statements are important, but they need to be lived out, not just be something people vote for or sign their names to.
The encounters also demonstrate that while there are differences between the world's religions, there are just as many areas where people of faith can find agreement and can look for ways to work together to make the world a better place.
But the summit is remarkable not just for what it offers, but also where it is being held. In Winnipeg. Previous summits took place in Rome, Sapporo, Cologne, Moscow and London, which puts our city into some pretty decent and august company.
And not only that; the Winnipeg summit is the largest since the world's religious leaders began meeting in 2005, with over 200 delegates and observers from 21 countries and seven major faith traditions.
As for the delegates themselves, none of the ones I met from other countries had been to Winnipeg before, and few had ever heard of it. But now they will go home not only with the words of the Winnipeg summit in their hearts and minds, but also with many new friendships across interfaith, racial and political lines, friendships that can, one hopes, help them put the goals of the event into practice.