Beyond Thoughts and Prayers
An End to Vigils
by Uroosa Jawed
Crisis response is typically not the primary work of interfaith organizations. Their more usual focus is creating meaningful connections between people of diverse faiths. Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Nebraska, where I work, is a unique and ambitious project in the field of interfaith relations in design, scale, and scope. It brings together into permanent residency a synagogue, church, mosque, and an interfaith center on a 38-acre campus in the middle of America’s heartland, four buildings connected by a walking bridge. By its design and operation it challenges people of faith and goodwill to be conscious and proactive about the assets of faith in civil life in a religiously pluralistic society. Tri-Faith Initiative aims to create a more inclusive culture in which religious pluralism is socially normative. Crisis response is not our primary focus.
The FBI's 2017 Report on Hate Crimes shows a marked increase for the third year in a row, particularly for religiously motivated hate crimes. According to the Pew Research Center, Jews make up about two percent of the US population, and Muslims make up about one percent. Despite the fact that together they account for only three percent of the population, according the FBI's latest report, hate crimes against Jews and Muslims account for 79 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes. Interfaith organizations like Tri-Faith Initiative work to develop educational programming in the fight against the rise in hate crimes. And yet, with hate crimes against the religious ‘other’ on the rise, often the work of these organizations becomes mired in having to react to crisis.
As communications director for Tri-Faith Initiative, I help to craft our overall message to the world. In the past seven months since I was hired, there have been four major incidents of violence attracting international attention (Tree of Life synagogue, Christchurch mosques, Sri Lankan churches, Chabad of Poway synagogue), several incidents of arson in black churches, and even more incidents of Muslim and Sikh individuals being attacked. More and more of the work I do has become reactionary crisis response. Creating the messages of condemnation, grief, and solidarity have become a monthly ritual. We are a nation in interfaith crisis, but crisis response is not what we want to have as our primary work.
Responding with Action
At what point do we say that thoughts and prayers, the organizing of vigils, and the writing of press releases is not enough? For Tri-Faith Initiative that day was May 22, 2019. That night, a 17-year-old Muslim woman was walking from her mosque in Lincoln, Nebraska after Ramadan services. She was attacked and beaten. Her attackers made derogatory and Islamophobic statements, which lead Lincoln police to investigate the attack as a hate crime.
The Lincoln incident hit close to home. Having organized vigils in the recent past, the Tri-Faith Initiative staff knew more had to be done. We could not continue to simply react. We had to act in meaningful ways that could produce change.
So as a response to the incident, we worked with local civic organizations in a call to action. The Nebraska Legislature brought a Legislative Resolution to the floor (LR 118), which called upon the legislative body to reject and condemn white supremacy. All but ten state senators signed the resolution. Using the Voter Activation Network (VAN) and the Hustle app, we activated volunteers to target voters to call the senators who had not yet signed the resolution. In the end one more senator signed the resolution, and several others have pledged to consider signing.
The effort yielded a moving result: family members of the victim reached out to Tri-Faith Initiative. They asked to speak to the senator who wrote the resolution, Senator Megan Hunt. Hunt’s chief of staff, Deena Keilany is a Syrian American and speaks Arabic. Through Keilany, the family was able to convey a message to the Nebraska Legislature, and that letter was read by Hunt to the legislative body. What impact the words had on those present is still to be determined. More importantly, for one family, the impact of being heard and acknowledged is immeasurable.
As organizations conducting work in faith-related fields, we must move beyond thoughts, prayers, and candlelight vigils. And while we continue to see spikes in religiously motivated hate crimes, we must continue to craft strategic plans for responding to crisis. Any organization which aims to create a more inclusive culture in which religious pluralism is socially normative must address the crisis of religious hate that our world is currently facing. The response to crisis must become interwoven into the daily work we do so we eliminate the need for creating statements and events in the wake of hate-filled tragedies. The far-reaching vision of any interfaith organization must include an end to vigils.
Header Photo: Pixabay