I grew up in New York City, and like a lot of native New Yorkers, I was given one unbreakable sidewalk commandment as a little kid: "Thou shalt not talk to strangers."

This commandment had corollaries. Accepting rides from strangers was prohibited. Eye contact was a no-no; taking food from strangers was out of the question. These rules were essentially non-negotiable. They had been conceived, we were told, with our best interests in mind and they existed, we trusted, for our own good.

I have a confession to make: I've been talking to strangers. And they've been talking to me. They have cooked for me, and I have eaten with them. I have even ridden with them.

Last June, I graduated from Harvard Divinity School. A month later, I started school again, but this time homeroom was my '94 Nissan, minus both hubcaps on the passenger's side. My coursework was conversation.

I had entered Harvard to learn about the place of religion in America. There, I had an epiphany: There was another way to do that, and it wasn't by sitting at a desk. I drove for four months around America, listening to people I had never met tell me about the place of God and the role of spirituality in their lives. I traveled to hear Americans talk their religious walks.

In school, I had prepared for my trip by paying attention to episodes in various religious traditions in which speaking and listening play central roles. I underlined a sentence at a time, writing notes in the margins of paperback copies of sacred scriptures. Soon, what I intuited as threads of connection between traditions bulged into more durable twine. Whole worlds have been formed from words, I learned, and everlasting covenants from attentiveness.

The holiness of conversation in the world's religions is both common and camouflaged.

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God creates the world byspeaking it into existence. In ancient Mayan tradition, too, the engine of the world's creation is the spoken voice.

The Qur'an is Allah's revelation, heard and transmitted word-for-word by the Prophet Muhammad. Its first word is "Recite." The biblical Hebrews, whenever called upon to enter covenantal agreements with God, are commanded to "hear."

The Sanskrit word Upanishad, the central text of the sacred Hindu dialogues, is literally defined as "to sit beside and listen." It can also mean, "sitting at the foot of the master." In living rooms, on side streets, in church pews, and diner booths, I encountered all kinds of American masters ready to teach. For impromptu curricula, they used their lives.

Buoyed by my findings, I set out to listen to people. I didn't seek one answer. I drove to hear many. Amid a seemingly splintered and increasingly fractious unum, I sought the pluribus. I cannot recount for you what I found without showing you who I found. So I will share the words of strangers. And I will retrace my progress as an unlikely pilgrim who grew up thinking not only that strangers were to be feared but that religion was a joke and believers its punch lines. I have been on a pilgrimage, and strangers have been my meccas.A few days into my drive, I am on an interstate cutting through Dayton, Ohio. I have never been to Dayton, and I know nothing about the city, clueless about where to go, who to see, and what to hear. The highway, though, leads me to an answer. Of half a dozen possible exits, I select one in the middle. When the exit forks, I go left, and soon I find myself stopped by a red light at the corner of 5th and Keowee. Across the street, lime-green Arabic script runs from right to left across the pediment of a white-stuccoed corner store.

Maybe I'm supposed to go in. No, dummy, of course you're supposed to go in. Pulling the vertically barred door, opaque, ominous, I summon my courage and step inside. There, I am welcomed by smells, Middle-Eastern smells, an Arab shuq in eastern Ohio.

A mechanical grinding, the sound of a butcher's saw, clears its throat to screech from time to time. Somebody unloads a basket of olives and sweets at the front counter. I pick up bottles of artichoke hearts and canned cherries, turning them upside down, blowing off dust. Procrastinating, basically. The customer turns to leave, we nod at each other, and, inhaling deeply, I amble nonchalantly the 30 feet up the aisle to the counter.

"How's it going?" I ask.


"I'm a, I'm uh"--good start, promising, professional--"here's the thing. I've been working on a project, see, where I've been talking to Muslims all over the country about Islam." This is more of a prediction than a fact at this point. "And I just got into Dayton, and, uh, I pulled off the highway, and there I was, with Arabic right in front of me. And so I'm wondering if you maybe might have any time to talk."

"We'll, it's Thursday, you know, so it's going to be very busy." The Muslim day of rest is Friday, and folks do their shopping the day before. "But if you do not mind the crowd, then yes," he says, flattered, "we would love to."