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Interfaith Activism – A Giant Awakening

A Silver Lining 

Interfaith Activism – A Giant Awakening

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

We are witnessing an awakening in the interfaith movement across the United States unlike anything we have seen since Civil Rights marches 50 years ago. This awakening seems to have surfaced as a direct result of the presidential election and in response to new policies and measures initiated by President Trump in his first 30 days in office. His executive orders included a Muslim travel ban; drastic measures to track down and deport undocumented immigrants; a reversal on transgender bathrooms in schools; and the go-ahead for pipeline construction on Native American sacred land.

Abraham Heschel and Martin Luther King marching in Selma, Alabama – Photo: Library of Congress, American Jewish Archives

Abraham Heschel and Martin Luther King marching in Selma, Alabama – Photo: Library of Congress, American Jewish Archives

That construction, accompanied by the forcible removal of the un-armed protestors trying to protect those lands, came just weeks after an unforgettable ceremony in which some 4,000 war veterans gathered in sub-zero weather at Standing Rock, North Dakota. They kneeled on the icy ground and asked forgiveness from Indigenous elders for historic crimes and genocide committed by the U.S. against First Nation peoples.

Added to all the other executive orders emanating from the White House, we have witnessed the Senate approval of a conservative Supreme Court judge that could result in a reversal of the Roe vs. Wade Abortion Law, affecting millions of women and their ability to make choices about their own bodies. These measures and orders have produced shock waves across the country, causing consternation and fear among many religious and ethnic communities, particularly those that have been specifically targeted.

Most of these developments fly in the face of interfaith values and goals, so current events have been body blows to interfaith leaders and organizations. What very few expected or predicted, however, a silver lining if you will, is that faith communities across the country are reaching out to each other in a new kind of solidarity, unmatched since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel marched together for racial justice half a century ago. The first big sign of this new sense of solidarity came when more than two million women, men, and children of all faiths and ethnicities marched on behalf of women’s rights the day after Trump’s inauguration.

On February 19 thousands turned up in New York City in Times Square for the I Am A Muslim Too solidarity march.

(CNN) - New Yorkers by the thousand, representing myriad backgrounds and faiths, converged on Times Square on Sunday, heeding a music mogul’s calls to let Muslims know their fellow Americans stood by them… The demonstrators – many of them hoisting placards featuring a woman in an American flag hijab with the caption “we the people are greater than fear” – gathered at one of the world’s most famous public places to denounce what they see as threats and pressure aimed at Muslim communities…
The list of speakers was extensive, according to the program. In addition to entrepreneur and Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons, who helped organize the event, attendees were scheduled to hear from rabbis, imams, a Sikh, a Buddhist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian reverends, a Mennonite, a Seventh Day Adventist minister, a Hindu, a Baptist pastor, local politicians and civil rights advocates.

Hundreds of cities and towns across North America have had similar marches, petitions, and proclamations, workshops, prayer meetings, and conferences. More than 800 churches in the United States have volunteered to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, and they are being joined now by mosques and synagogues that want to participate. Members of some congregations are offering sanctuary in their homes.

Google ‘interfaith news’ and you’ll find interfaith activities all over the map, usually related to social justice in one way or another. Today I found positive interfaith news in Fort Worth (TX), Steeleton (PA), Racine (Wisconsin), Newark (NJ), Providence (RI), Lonsdale (MN), Lincoln (NB), and several dozen more. New items show up day after day. The stories offer mounting evidence that the fruit of the past five decades of slow but steady interfaith networking, trust-building, and coalition-seeding is ripe for harvest.

Individuals reaching beyond their normal boundaries, identifying with the plight of ‘the other,’ tell the story best.

Tahil Sharma, a young college graduate and the interfaith liaison of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, shared a post on the matter on Facebook after graves were desecrated at an historic Jewish cemetery in St. Louis: “... the nation that taught me growing up that pluralism is key to the development and prosperity of all people is now being challenged by the likes of a monolithic and fervent nationalism that seeks to blame ‘the other,’ hate ‘the other,’ and hurt ‘the other.’

“The Jewish community has been one of many communities in 2017 to bear witness to such horrible treatment. Over 100 synagogues and Jewish community centers have received calls of bomb threats so far this year, threats that have led to evacuations and a sharp increase in the need for added security and intervention from federal agencies. To add to this hate-mongering towards a specific community, two Jewish cemeteries, in St. Louis and Philadelphia, had hundreds of gravesites desecrated and damaged in what could be considered a blunt message ... the level of cowardice and audacity that has emerged from the shadows has no place in a society as diverse and inclusive as the United States of America.”
Mt. Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia, before it was desecrated -  Photo: ingenweb.org

Mt. Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia, before it was desecrated -  Photo: ingenweb.org

Multiple volunteers and donors, as reported by MSNBC, have stepped forward to repair the damaged sites, including more than $100,000 raised by a Muslim fundraising event to help repair the St. Louis cemetery.

In Texas over $1 million was collected following a January arson attack on a mosque in the town of Victoria. As reported by CNN, “The congregation of the Victoria Islamic Center in Texas was devastated. Its mosque was destroyed over the weekend in a fire, the cause unknown so far. Then an act of kindness revived their spirits – the leaders of the local Jewish congregation gave them the keys to their synagogue so they could continue to worship.”

The leader of the mosque said he wasn’t surprised by the gesture. “I never doubted the support that we were going to get” after the fire, Dr. Shahid Hashmi, a surgeon and president of Victoria Islamic Center, told CNN. “We’ve always had a good relationship with the community here.” Hashmi said Dr. Gary Branfman, a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Victoria, a fellow surgeon, and a friend – just came by his house and gave him the keys.

Gurdwara Sisganj Sahib, a Sikh sanctuary, in Delhi. The long window under the marble platform is the location where Guru Tegh Bahadur was martyred. – Photo: Wikimedia,  Hari Singh, Cc.2.0

Gurdwara Sisganj Sahib, a Sikh sanctuary, in Delhi. The long window under the marble platform is the location where Guru Tegh Bahadur was martyred. – Photo: Wikimedia, Hari Singh, Cc.2.0

Professor Tarunjit Singh Butalia, a Sikh who teaches at Ohio State University, has been a leader of American Sikhs for decades, all the while taking leadership roles in Religions for Peace International, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the North American Interfaith Network, and Ohio interfaith organizations. He offers this story exemplifying interfaith solidarity from Sikh history.

The 9th Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, came to the defense of Hindus when they were being persecuted and subjected to forcible conversions at the hands of the Muslim Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. Guru Tegh Bahadur, known as the Sikh champion of Hindus, offered himself to the Emperor Aurangzeb as a sacrifice on their behalf. He was beheaded along with three of his devotees, after being horribly tortured. The Mughal emperor turned his fury on the Sikhs, but kept his word. Subsequently the Hindus were indeed allowed to live on in his empire. Hindus universally regard Sikh Guru Teq Bahadur’s execution as a sacrifice for their faith. To borrow a saying from another great faith, Butalia concludes, “Greater love hath no man than this ... that a man lay down his life for his friends.”