National Day of Prayer, reshaped by pandemic,
includes interfaith and online events
May 7, 2020
The National Day of Prayer, like most events amid the coronavirus, will have a different look this year as it is marked on May 7.
Now in its 69th year, the observance – often predominated by evangelical Christians gathering in public places – will feature interfaith and even international voices on computer screens and cellphones. For the first time, Religions for Peace USA has organized a National Interfaith Prayer Service for Healing & Hope via Facebook and Zoom.
“Of course, we do pray separately in our own religious communities but it’s also important for us to come together to pray together and uplift our common humanity and pray for everyone,” said Tarunjit Singh Butalia, executive director of Religions for Peace USA.
“Some of our own religious communities, ethnic and others who are poorer, have been in fact quite severely hit with the pandemic so we need to come together and pray for everyone because we’re only as secure as the very least among us,” he added.
Butalia said there will be a “prayer for the infected” that will be offered by a faith leader who has recovered from coronavirus and a “prayer for the dead and their families” offered by a faith leader who lost a close family member to the virus.
The online gathering is set to feature Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jain, Unitarian Universalist, Christian and Jewish leaders. Butalia said he expects the service will become an annual event.
Anuttama Dasa, director of communications for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, said he plans to participate in the Religions for Peace afternoon event. He said he thinks the coronavirus has made Americans of many faiths realize the benefits of prayer for strength and guidance.
“I also hope more and more people this year realize that those doctors and nurses on the front lines include Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Hare Krishnas, Sikhs, and the whole diverse spectrum of faiths,” said Dasa, who is a board member of the U.S. chapter of the interreligious organization, in an email to Religion News Service.
“I have two friends, Krishna devotees in the DC/Baltimore area, both anesthesiologists, one African American and one Indian American, risking their lives in COVID units, and I know they are praying their Krishna prayers for each and every patient.”
The National Day of Prayer was created by Congress in 1952 and has been observed on the third Thursday of May since 1988. In the law’s original language, churches were the only houses of worship specifically mentioned. It described the day as one “on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”
The National Day of Prayer Task Force has held a National Day of Prayer observance featuring prominent evangelicals since 1983. In recent years, in addition to promoting tens of thousands of events from churches to courthouses, leaders such as former Southern Baptist President Ronnie Floyd have presided over a prayer service in the U.S. Capitol. President Donald Trump held Rose Garden ceremonies the last two years on the day, featuring speakers of Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim faiths. However, evangelical leaders seemed dominant among both speakers and audience members, including some of Trump’s unofficial advisers.
But in 2020, with coronavirus social distancing in place, the task force’s listing of events by ZIP code show many in “virtual” rather than physical locations. Its national event, co-hosted by Will Graham, grandson of evangelist Billy Graham, is set to be broadcast and livestreamed on May 7 evening.
“This year, while some communities may have the ability to gather in small numbers, we encourage observing all local health guidelines and social distancing recommendations that are in place,” said Dion Elmore, the task force’s vice president for marketing and public relations.
The Presidential Prayer Team has likewise focused on online initiatives, requesting people to sign up for a “prayer room” time slot to pray for national leaders and offering a guide for the prayers that lists Trump and his Cabinet members.
“As we continue to face the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are unable to gather in their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship,” said Jim Bolthouse, president of the nonpartisan prayer ministry, in a statement. “The ability to bring praying Americans together virtually on the National Day of Prayer has never been more important.”
Some Christian groups that have not previously promoted the prayer day have chosen to observe it in their own ways this year.
The Rev. Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches, said her ecumenical organization wanted to celebrate a period of ” Joyful Noise ” as a show of solidarity amid the lack of physical togetherness in COVID-19 times. Initially, council members thought solely of ringing church bells but are now urging that a range of religious expressions be heard at noon on May 7.
“Everybody has a kind of call that brings them into worship together – sometimes it’s sung, sometimes it’s spoken and sometimes it’s bell ringing,” she said. “And what we wanted to do is send this hope-filled message across North Carolina, that we will all be together again in person at some point. There will be a day after.”
At a Catholic church in Durham, North Carolina, members have been asked to select a handbell from a case inside the church, wipe it down and step outside to ring it at noon for five minutes (all while “maintaining social distance” and wearing masks). Other churches plan to have bells ring from their towers or carillons. For her part, Copeland, a United Methodist minister who expects to be able to hear church bells from her front porch, plans to ring a schoolroom bell once used by her great-grandmother: “I’ll just add my little bell to the noise.”
Another new approach comes from the United Church of Christ, which plans to observe an Interfaith Day of Prayer on Instagram and Facebook. The “day of healing and hope” will feature prayers for wholeness and health. The progressive denomination will post prayers over a 24-hour period by more than 40 leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths on its social media accounts and invite others to add their own.
“On this National Day of Prayer it is as important as it has ever been to be reminded of our interconnectedness with one another and all of creation,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC’s associate general minister of justice and local church ministries. “We are deeply grateful for this diverse group of faith leaders, serving in varied spaces, who have agreed to lead us in prayer each hour in ways that connect our hearts, honor the holy and amplify our cries.”
Just like in other years, there are those who are not in favor of a nationally designated day set aside for prayer. The American Humanist Association, for instance, hailed the May 1 introduction of a congressional resolution supporting a National Day of Reason. The measure did not move further in the House of Representatives, whose date of return to the Capitol is not certain.
But the U.S. observance will have a global dimension, with the Israel-based Elijah Interfaith Institute planning an installment of its online “coronaspection” series timed to the prayer day and Ramadan – a month of intense prayer and fasting for Muslims – featuring a Catholic bishop, a rabbi and a Muslim scholar discussing solitude.
Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, its director, said he and other interreligious leaders view the pandemic as a time to move beyond religious isolation in the U.S. and around the world. “It’s almost an intuitive outcome that, whether specifically for the day or because it’s more broadly in the air, it’s a time for religions to open up to the other,” he said. “The virus doesn’t distinguish between us and therefore our efforts in addressing it, both physically and spiritually, should not distinguish between us.”
Religious Diversity Journeys (RDJ) Students continue their journey with Zoom
Area Students participate in first “RDJ Anywhere” with a Zoom visit to Muslim Unity Center
From kitchen tables, bedrooms, and family rooms, over 100 7th graders across the Detroit Metro area on April 22 Zoomed into the Muslim Unity Center as they continued their Religious Diversity Journey for the 2019-2020 school year.
RDJ began the year visiting churches and synagogues and doing hands-on community service projects in the buildings with clergy and congregant volunteers. But come March, the some 700 RDJ Ambassador students were unable to physically complete the program as social distancing restrictions set in to slow the spread of coronavirus.
IFLC staff and board members would not be discouraged. They still wanted to give these children, specially selected by their social studies teachers to be their school ambassadors for the program, to have an opportunity to continue the journey virtually as they learned about the world’s major religions through unique experiences. So, RDJ Anywhere was launched, beginning with the Islamic segment of the journey.
Dima El-Gamal, a member of the Muslim Unity Center, welcomed the children just as she would if they had visited the mosque on Square Lake Road in Bloomfield Hills in person. Through a slideshow, she offered them a tour of the mosque, starting with a photo of the large rock outside the mosque entrance. The rock contains verses from the Quran that explains Muslim reverence to the words of God that were given to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. There is also a decorated wood post, donated to the mosque by a local church, that contains carvings of the words “Peace be upon you” in many languages including Arabic, English, and Hebrew.
Students learned that if they visited the mosque, they would have seen the gymnasium where many social gatherings and youth athletic programs are held, as well as the sanctuary where worshippers would pray, shoulder to shoulder, five times a day.
El-Gamal also briefly discussed the many contributions the Muslim world has given to civilization from centuries past, including advances in mathematics, engineering, science in architecture, when at the same time Europe was undergoing the Dark Ages during the plague.
MUC Imam Mohamed Almasmari was also on the zoom to answer questions, which ranged from what special clothing and foods Muslims eat to Muslim views on modesty, marriage, and the afterlife. They also asked questions on how, and how many times a day, Muslims are obligated to pray.
“We pray five times a day because it demonstrates our intimacy with God at different times of the day,” Almasmari explained. “On the carpet, there are lines in our carpet (of our sanctuary), which serve as guides so when men pray, they can pray shoulder to shoulder in a perfectly straight line. In this way, we build relationships and eliminate anything that may divide us. When we pray this way, we are all equal, there is no racism or tribalism,”
Student Yusuf Hares of Novi demonstrated the call to prayer, chanted in Arabic, while his mother, Rouzana Hares offered the English translation. Hares, who attends the James R. Geisler Middle School in Walled Lake, has enjoyed his RDJ experience so far, especially learning about all the different deities in Buddhism. Hares, who was proud to demonstrate his Arabic chanting skills, said he is sad he will not be able to spend any time with his friends at MUC during Ramadan.
Almasmari also lamented how difficult it would be this Ramadan now that large gatherings are prohibited because of social distancing restrictions.
“It will be very hard that we are not gathering at the mosque,” Almasmari said. “Also, for the first time in the history of Islam, Muslims from all over the world will not be traveling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Haj.”
Almasmari told the children that even though Muslims and people of other faiths cannot physically gather in houses of worship, prayer can be expressed through showing kindness to others, giving charity and even smiling at a friend, neighbor, or family member.
Almasmari said when quarantine restrictions will be lifted, everyone will gain a better appreciation for life’s simple gifts such as going outside, gathering together with friends, family and other worshippers, and seeing people face to face instead of always on a screen. Maybe at that time, humans will no longer rush to their screens to socialize, he added.
“In the meantime, even in a crisis, we can continue to pray. And in virtual gatherings like this, there is still intellectual growth. While we are in isolation, make sure you appreciate the family members who are with you in your home.”
During the Zoom, students were polled with a few questions. When asked, 73 percent of the students said they know or had met a Muslim in their life and 63 percent of the students have never visited a mosque.
In May, RDJ Anywhere will continue sharing more resources with its RDJ teachers and students. There will be a virtual visit to the Hindu Temple of Canton and perhaps the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Holocaust Memorial Center.
These Jewish brothers are making face masks out of yarmulkes to protect Houston’s homeless
By Lauren Lee, CNN
With masks in short supply, a pair of Houston teenagers found a way to use yarmulkes to help protect some of their city’s most vulnerable people — the homeless.
With the help of their family, Matthew and Jeremy Jason have given away over 300 face masks made from yarmulkes to Houston’s homeless.
Kippahs to the Rescue
The project is called Kippahs to the Rescue. A kippah (Hebrew) or yarmulke (Yiddish) is a traditional Jewish head covering. The brothers came up with their idea over a family Shabbat dinner, which is typically a time to reflect and be grateful.
“The community has given us a lot, and my family wants to be a part of that,” 15-year-old Matthew Jason told CNN. “We want to be able to help others.”
The Jasons were discussing the recent CDC recommendations for Americans to wear face masks in public to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“We realized that the kippah fits the shape of a mask.”
The Jason brothers have been spending their Fridays volunteering with Food Not Bombs, a Houston nonprofit that feeds the hungry. During that time, they realized how difficult it could be for those experiencing homelessness to deal with the coronavirus threat.
“They don’t have a lot of money or access to masks,” Matthew explained. “So we’re like, ‘Hmm, that’d actually be kind of cool to see what we could do with it.'”
The teens rounded up at least 60 kippahs from around their house that they’d brought home from bar mitzvahs and other events.
“We knew there was a mask shortage, so we used those kippahs to start production,” he said. “From there, the idea took off.”
Others have also found kippahs as a good option for a face mask. The magazine Jewish Currents tweeted a photo of a man with a purple kippah over his face,
190 people are talking about this
A family and community invested in giving
Matthew Jason and his family made over 300 masks out of kippahs.
Kippahs to the Rescue has turned into a family project, with parents Veronica and Mark and 23-year-old brother Danny chipping in to sew elastic strips to the yarmulkes.
Besides his family, Matthew has enlisted the family’s synagogue, Congregation Brith Shalom, which set up a drop box to collect donated kippahs. So far, they have gathered nearly 700.
This wasn’t Matthew’s first time helping out those experiencing homeless. For his bar mitzvah service project two years ago, he launched Street Birthday Parties. Each month the teen hosts a birthday party with cake and candles for the area’s homeless.
The high school sophomore hopes others will grab onto the idea of making this sort of DIY mask in their own communities. Steps to making the mask are pretty simple. Sew a 6-inch elastic strip to both sides to anchor the kippah around the ears. “There’s a lot of people out there that really need help,” he said, “and anything can help even in the smallest way.”
Great Interfaith video by the Greater Boston Interfaith Association about dealing with the Corona Virus Pandemic. Click on the following link.
Mary Gilhuly and Steve Klaper from Song and Spirit Institute for Peace
Volunteers for Sikh nonprofit deliver food and supplies across L.A. amid pandemic
A volunteer says his drive to help comes from his religion, which includes the idea of selfless service – or “seva.”
“We have always been taught on Sikh principle that we should be helping people out.”
By Natasha Roy
May 1, 2020
When Sumitpal Singh’s phone rings, the person on the other end is almost always in need of something: a hot meal, groceries or over-the-counter medicine. When he hears the request, he immediately does what he can, either by delivering the supplies himself or by finding someone who can. Singh, 38, a Los Angeles-based scientist, is the Southern California coordinator for the international humanitarian nonprofit United Sikhs. He said his drive to help others comes from his religious beliefs, which include the idea of selfless service – or “seva.” In the past, faith has motivated Sikhs to help hurricane victims and supply on-site support to victims of violence in New Delhi. Now, it’s inspiring Singh to provide relief during the coronavirus pandemic.
“From morning all the way to night, there’s calls coming,” Singh told NBC Asian America.
Singh has been volunteering with United Sikhs for the last four years, preparing food in the langar – free kitchen – of a Sikh temple, called a gurdwara, and serving it to Los Angeles’ homeless community. Langars are a core aspect of Sikhism, and anyone can step into a gurdwara anywhere in the world and be served a vegetarian meal. These values have led Sikh groups to help deliver food, water and other supplies after emergencies like Hurricane Sandy.
In the wake of the pandemic, Singh – who is from New Delhi – has been working with United Sikhs to deliver resources to those in need in the Los Angeles area, where he’s lived for the last 16 years.
“We have always been taught on Sikh principle that we should be helping people out,” Singh said.
The organization has a hotline that anyone anywhere in the world – not just Sikhs – can call to request hot meals, over-the-counter medicine, groceries and other supplies. Singh’s days start with reviewing the hotline requests to identify which volunteers can be assigned to fulfill them. He said he’s also planning a large-scale meal distribution program.
Many of the calls the group gets come from families with children, Singh said. A story that stuck out to him was the one about the parents of two young children who were stranded in a Los Angeles motel after their flight to India was canceled. They had nowhere else to go, and before calling United Sikhs, they were living off McDonald’s food. Other calls largely come from the elderly and those with disabilities, he said.
“They are really, really thankful, because they’re scared to get out,” Singh said.
People have shown their gratitude through text messages and donations, Singh said. People whom United Sikhs has helped in the past are also coming forward to volunteer. His biggest obstacle is finding volunteers in areas where there’s no local United Sikhs chapter. In those cases, the group will call restaurants, shops or grocery stores and ask them to deliver goods and cover any costs. Traveling around Los Angeles and making deliveries could put Singh at risk for contracting the virus. His day job involves making products for COVID-19 testing, so he knows the precautions he needs to take, especially because he has two young daughters. But he said his family is excited to do whatever they can to help the cause.
“Am I worried? I would say yes, because that helps me with taking more and more precautions,” Singh said. “But the Sikh principle, it’s a selfless seva. So that comes later for me, the worry. I am more worried about people sleeping without food.”
This story is part of our Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series, “AAPI Frontline,” honoring essential workers who are serving their communities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Four roommates of different faiths face a pandemic together
LOS ANGELES (RNS) – Hadar Cohen, Ala’ Khan, Maya Mansour and Jonathan Simcosky arrived as strangers, ready to embark on a new interfaith journey. The four roommates moved into a five-bedroom, five-bath house in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood earlier this year. They come from different faiths: Baha’i, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Cohen came from Jerusalem but had already lived in the Bay Area for a few years. Simcosky made the trek from Salem, Massachusetts, to L.A. Khan and Mansour were already in Southern California. They live rent-free in a new interfaith experiment known as the Abrahamic House, the brainchild of 33-year-old Mohammed Al Samawi, a Muslim man from Yemen who, in his memoir, “The Fox Hunt,” wrote about the threats he endured for his interfaith advocacy. The catch? The four roommates, known as “fellows,” maintain their day jobs but agree to live under the same roof in a co-living and co-creating space for one to two years to learn from one another’s traditions and to organize and host interfaith events and programs for the public. Their shared mantra: “gathering not othering.”
The fellows were selected at the beginning of the year and began moving in around late February. By early March, they were establishing house rules and responsibilities. Then the coronavirus outbreak struck the country. Now, together in lockdown, they’ve adopted new ways of virtually gathering with others while honoring each other’s rituals and traditions. In a time of social distancing, they have had to learn to live together and how to keep each other “safe from potential death and illness,” said Khan.
It has only been about three months, but so far things have gone well as the community celebrated Easter, Passover, Ramadan and the Baha’i celebration of Ridvan and learned to adjust to each other’s religious practices. Just as they were moving in, Mansour, who is Baha’i, had begun fasting in preparation for the Baha’i New Year. It’s 19 days of daytime fasting that culminated just as Gov. Gavin Newsom issued statewide stay-at-home orders to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Every Friday, Cohen, 28, who is Jewish, practices Shabbat, a day of rest and celebration beginning Friday at sunset. Khan, 30, who is Muslim, is currently fasting for Ramadan. Simcosky, who described himself as a “Southern Baptist preacher’s kid,” said the Abrahamic House experience has so far been “educational and enlightening.”
“All these things are not part of the way I normally live in the world,” said Simcosky, 35, a book editor.
Simcosky said he grew up in a culture that “was very interested in converting, conquering and convincing.”
“That never really resonated with me,” said Simcosky, who now attends an Episcopal church.
“As I look at some of the conflicts we’re having in our nation, supremacy is popping up, and I feel like there’s a calling to not conquer or to convince, but to learn and to bless.”
The global pandemic has somewhat complicated this co-living situation. With the stay-at-home orders, the group takes turns going out grocery shopping. They keep a list in the kitchen of communal food running low. They signed up for a Community Supported Agriculture subscription and receive a box of produce every Sunday. The group had to cancel in-person events they had planned for the community. And in order to maintain social distancing, they decided to not have guests and friends over. Khan, a filmmaker, decided to stay in quarantine with her roommates instead of moving in with her parents in Santa Barbara. If she isolated outside the Abrahamic House, the experience wouldn’t have been the same, she said. Now, every Monday evening, the fellows have a communal dinner. It’s a way for them to not just talk logistical house issues or specific faith topics, but to simply be among one another. They rotate cooking responsibilities.
“We actually made that decision before the stay-at-home order was put in place. We wanted to intentionally spend one evening a week having dinner together,” Khan said. To Khan, doing multifaith work can sometimes be compartmentalized as a part-time thing or once-a-month meetings. The weekly dinners change that. “Living together with that intention, we have our interactions randomly through the kitchen where all of a sudden we’ll talk about scripture, which is really cool,” she said.
These are the kinds of experiences Al Samawi hoped the fellows at Abrahamic House would have. Al Samawi said he grew up thinking that anyone who wasn’t Muslim “would go to hell no matter if they are good people or bad people.” Now, Al Samawi lives by the phrase “Who saves a life, saves the whole world.” “If we can change one person’s perspective from hate and ignorance to love and compassion, that would be kind of like saving the world,” Al Samawi told Religion News Service. “That’s what I really want to do.” He was led to interfaith work after reading the Bible and realizing his faith shared many similarities with Christianity. The message and the name of the prophets were the same, he said.
Al Samawi began connecting with Jews and Christians through Facebook and at international conferences. He advocated for peace and dialogue, which he said spurred death threats against him. He eventually fled his war-torn homeland with the help of friends he’d made on Facebook, according to his book.
Since then, Al Samawi has detailed this harrowing tale at universities, churches and other houses of worship in the U.S. And now, his life will be portrayed in a film developed by “La La Land” Producer Marc Platt, with Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer.
Al Samawi said he has received financial donations for the Abrahamic House from board members of the nonprofit as well as contacts he has made through his book and speaking engagements. The international nonprofit Moishe House, a collection of homes that serve as hubs for young Jewish leaders, has been a source of logistical help. Al Samawi aims to open multiple Abrahamic houses across the country and globe. For now, his focus is on the L.A. fellows.
Since the roommates can’t host events for the public in person, they moved their programming online.
So far, the fellows have hosted an online summit exploring the intersections of faith and justice and a virtual symposium discussing fasting in different faith traditions. For the end of May, Cohen organized a virtual multifaith feminism event in honor of Shavuot, a Jewish holiday that marks the celebration of wisdom by staying up all night to learn.
On Thursday (May 14), the Abrahamic House hosted its most recent virtual event with a Zoom screening of Khan’s film documenting “Pray Beyond Borders,” a binational day of prayer at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego that included Muslim and Christian faith leaders.
The 2019 event that Khan documented chronicled the six-month anniversary of Border Mosque, a group of Muslims that meets for prayer at the border on the last Sunday of the month. Those prayers coincide with Border Church, or La Iglesia Fronteriza, a Sunday service held for the last decade at the border and led by the Rev. John Fanestil, a United Methodist minister.
To Khan, this is the kind of storytelling she finds inspiring. “The basis of my faith as a Muslim is to treat people kindly and well and compassionately,” she said. “We have an obligation as faith people to do whatever we can to actively construct a more just world.”
The fellows have also been blogging about celebrating major holidays together. They wrote about cleaning the house in preparation for Passover and taking part in other rituals, like bedikat chametz, with guidance from Cohen. Instead of hiding pieces of leavened bread throughout the house, like the tradition entails, the fellows instead hid “spiritual chametz” embodying “anything that no longer serves us psychologically, emotionally and mentally.”
Cohen said that before the pandemic, she was also planning to attend Jewish festivals and home events in L.A. for Passover.
The intimacy of this tradition while at home with her housemates helped everyone get to know each other better, she said.
“It was one of the first rituals we did together, and it was really beautiful,” said Cohen, a feminist spiritual leader and artist. “It felt very powerful.”
To Mansour, 24, being at the Abrahamic House is a way to help others better understand her Baha’i faith.
“I was really attracted to an opportunity to share and represent my faith that is typically left out of interfaith spaces,” said Mansour, editor of One Report, a spiritually minded publication for young people of all faiths. “I was excited that Baha’i’s were even listed on the (fellowship) application.” Khan said the experience of being part of the Abrahamic House has been inspiring. She is glad to know there are other people who invest time and energy into this kind of interfaith work.
Before moving in, she hoped the fellows would all get along and become friends.
That hope, at least, has been fulfilled. “It has definitely panned out very beautifully,” she said.
Copyright 2020 Religion News Service LLC.
The Colorful Way Dearborn Muslims Are Celebrating Ramadan In Isolation
Michigan families decorate their homes with lights so that even as they can’t meet,
Ramadan’s festive spirit brightens their neighborhoods.
Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, are observing Ramadan in a way that would have been inconceivable just a few months ago. Mosques are shuttered, festive dinners with extended family and friends are canceled, and many members of this ethnically and economically diverse community, one of the largest Muslim populations in the U.S., have found themselves on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Confronted with these changes, three Michigan Muslim organizations have come up with a way to help community members feel connected during a season of social distancing, the Ramadan Lights Contest. The challenge encourages Muslims in the area to decorate the exteriors of their houses, take photos of their creations, and nominate themselves or neighbors for prizes. Across the greater Dearborn region, at least 65 families have responded by decorating their homes with lights, lanterns, and banners to celebrate Ramadan, which began on April 23.
The organizers have received photos of Ramadan wreaths, string lights tracing the eaves of houses, and stars dangling from porches. Above the front door of one house, a family has placed an electric crescent moon that glows in the colors of the rainbow. Another family used a drone to dramatically film their lights from all angles, sending in a video submission with a holiday song playing in the background. Hassan Chami, a Dearborn resident and one of the organizers of the competition, said he has enlisted a friend to create a customized 3-D printed sign with the words Ramadan Mubarak, or blessed Ramadan, to place outside his home.
“In the short term, we’re trying to lift everyone’s spirits during COVID-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus, Chami told HuffPost. “Maybe we’ll have some families driving around the city looking at the lights.” But Chami has a long-term dream for Dearborn in mind, too. “I hope it’s a tradition where in the future, my kids and nieces and nephews grow up in a community where, when Ramadan comes around, the entire city is lit up,” he said. Chami founded the Ramadan Suhoor Festival, a late-night food festivalthat draws thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the holy month. This year, Chami said he had about 40 vendors lined up to dish out halal delicacies, his biggest number yet. But he had to cancel the festival due to the virus.
It wasn’t the only festive social gathering that Muslims in the area have had to forego. Smoking hookah in friends’ garages, chatting around fire pits in mosque parking lots after evening prayers, sipping coffee in the city’s Yemini cafes into the early morning hours, all of these beloved local traditions have been shelved because of the virus.
The region’s Muslim communities have been on the front lines of responding to COVID-19, according to Sally Howell, a scholar of Arab-American history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Muslims in the area are overrepresented in fields such as health care, law enforcement, food service and taxi services, she said.
“The Muslim community has have been hit very hard by this.”
This year, Halal Metropolis, the Ramadan Suhoor Festival, and the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC), an umbrella organization for the state’s Muslim groups, teamed up to organize this trend into a friendly neighborhood competition.
Howell said that it’s common in the Middle East for public areas, such as streets and cafes, to light up during the holy month, but somewhat rarer for people to decorate their own houses. Chami said he thinks it’s standard practice for Muslims in the Middle East to decorate their homes for the holiday, and that American Muslims are catching up now because they finally have access to Ramadan lights and home decor through Amazon, party stores and local grocery stores.
Machhadie Assi, an event coordinator and youth director for MMCC, said the practice of decorating homes during Ramadan wasn’t very popular in Lebanon, where she grew up. But she said it’s a trend that younger American Muslims are beginning to adapt, after seeing how important decorating is during Christmas.
Regardless of how it started, Assi hopes that more Dearborn Muslims will adopt the tradition in the future. She said she sees the Ramadan Lights Challenge as a way to bring “contagious, positive energy” to the community.
“Ramadan is a very uplifting month, so hopefully this light will represent the enlightenment of Ramadan,” she said.
The three Muslim organizations will be sharing photos of nominated houses throughout the holy month. The most creative houses will receive a certificate and a tray of sweets for Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. The homes will be recognized during a ceremony in 2021. Howell said she also hopes the challenge will become an annual tradition and that it will eventually be recognized by Dearborn’s local city beautification group, which awards prizes for the city’s best Christmas decorations every year. In an era of increased surveillance and a time when Islamophobic rhetoric is spewed from the highest offices in the land, draping lights for Ramadan is a way for Dearborn’s Muslims to celebrate their religious identities and make their presence known, Howell said. “They’re saying, ‘Here in this space, we’re going to be ourselves, we’re not going to worry so much about what other people think. This is who we are,'” she said.
Four African women share wisdom for a suffering world
National Catholic Reporter
May 15, 2020
Two months ago, I was privileged to accompany a remarkable group of people touring ancient Christian sites in Greece. While our focus was on women leaders in early Christianity, I could not help but notice some impressive female leaders traveling right alongside us. The witness of four women from South Africa was especially compelling. They helped us appreciate diverse understandings of God in an African cultural context. At a pilgrimage prayer service dedicated to the “God Beyond all Names,” Nontando Hadebe, reflected that in most African languages there are no pronouns: “So for our understanding of God, it is more the mystery, the greatness of God. … The gendering or masculinization of God is not something that you find in African traditional religions.”
Further, “African religions are diverse and communal in origin. … They don’t have a founder such as Mohammed, or Moses or Jesus.” African traditional religious “emerged over centuries from communities gathering together, acquiring wisdom and reflecting on life.” For Africans, said Hadebe, “You express your faith in God in the way you treat your fellow human beings. … The understanding of what it means to be human is you are human in your relationship with others. Descartes says, ‘I think therefore I am,’ but African traditional religions say, ‘I relate, therefore I am.’ “
The African bishops’ synodal document, “Ecclesia in Africa,” and the work of African theologians greatly benefited inculturation and evangelization, she said. Cultural values from African traditional religions have been appropriated and reflected in African Christianity “so that Christianity has an African face.” For example, the idea of the church “as the extended family of God” incorporates African communal values.
Born into a Catholic family in Zimbabwe, Hadebe teaches systematic theology, pastoral ministry and African spirituality at St. Augustine College in Johannesburg, South Africa. A member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, she is passionate about gender equality, Africanization and social justice. These she brings to her weekly radio program with Radio Veritas, which is the only Catholic radio channel in South Africa and reaches 4 million people. Thanks to Hadebe’s initiative and encouragement, three other South African women – including two millennials – joined our pilgrimage. Their stories are fascinating.
Annastacia Mphuthi heads the Office of Divine Worship and Liturgy for the Johannesburg Archdiocese. In this capacity, she gives workshops in faith communities throughout the archdiocese, training people to be communion ministers, lectors and in other liturgical ministries. Because of tribal beliefs about female menstruation, one problem Mphuthi frequently faces is that parish leaders – including priests and pastoral council members – sometimes resist permitting women to distribute Communion or proclaim the Word. “They believe the women are not supposed to be entering the sanctuary,” she says.
With the support of her archbishop, Buti Tlhagale, Mphuthi works with communities telling them they “need to respect women” and that while inculturation is a value, “they must understand the church culture as well,” and the church culture is to include women. Other liturgical elements that sometimes require education and intervention include appropriate times for dancing and drumming – fine at the “Gloria,” but not at the “Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).”
Two millennial women, Sagoema Maredi and Pride Makgato, blessed us with their youthful energy and fresh vision.
Maredi describes herself as a “born and bred” Catholic from South Africa. She studied theology with Hadebe, an unusual choice for a millennial woman. “It’s a very embarrassing story,” she laughs. The impetus came from reading “the buzz book” at the time, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code: “I went to watch the movie ‘Angels and Demons’ with my sister, and there was Tom Hanks in the Vatican, able to interpret all those ancient languages and statues and history. … I decided ‘He’s very smart, I want to be able to do that.’ I guess I’ve lived my life wanting to be like Tom Hanks.”
After majoring in the Old Testament and Hebrew in college, Maredi had an opportunity to continue graduate studies but chose to enter the workforce instead. She now works at Baptist Theological College in Johannesburg, where she was recently promoted to academic program administrator, the first black woman to hold that position. She hopes to expand awareness of the need for pastors to address social ills which she finds “too rarely thought of” in South African seminaries.
Makgato describes herself as “a 24-year-old proud black woman” and cradle Catholic who “did all my sacraments,” although her mother gave her the option of waiting to be confirmed. After having a spiritual experience one Christmas, Makgato changed from her initial career path as a beautician: “I don’t know if I can call it a religious experience, but I think I had one. And being a beautician or becoming a makeup artist just didn’t make sense to me anymore.”
Makgato’s grandmother had asked the family to attend Mass together before Christmas dinner.
“And just being in a church after I hadn’t been to church in so long, really moved me,” said Makgato. “It changed me, I guess. I don’t know, maybe it was the service that was held, but it evoked something in me.”
After the meal, Makgato found information about St. Augustine College in her grandmother’s church newspaper. She is now pursuing a bachelor of theology degree, an experience she says is “quite amazing.”
One of the things Makgato loves about the Catholic Church is that it is different from other churches in her culture that do not allow women to be in a room with men or with the tribal elders without a head covering and a long skirt: “So I think I also love the Roman Catholic Church because I’m allowed to be myself. And although it has not progressed to what we want it to be, I’m not told what I should wear.” She was confirmed last November.
Since returning home in mid-March I have been in regular communication with each of these South African “soul sisters.” Like ours, their country is suffering greatly in lockdown from the coronavirus. Thankfully each of them is healthy, if anxious about their families and worried about the poverty stricken who have even fewer options than the poor in the U.S.
After a generous benefactor helped with her fees, Makgato is thrilled that she will be able to continue theology studies in June, but worried because classes will be online and her internet access is unreliable. She is also dismayed that so many government officials are “stealing food parcels that are meant to be given to the poor.”
Because of the quarantine, neither Mphuthi nor her husband are working, so they are financially struggling. They are also concerned about their son who is frustrated by the pace of online classes and poor internet access. “But we give it all to God,” she writes.
The peripatetic Hadebe is up to her usual good works including joining with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians “to respond to gendered aspects [of COVID-19] such as the rise in domestic violence” and aiding an ecumenical effort to help grassroots pastors who have lost income due to church closures. A week ago, on Soweto TV, she joined a panel of religious leaders addressing domestic violence through the story of the biblical Tamar.
Hadebe’s reflection on COVID-19 is inspiring: “It challenges us to answer the call that we are each other’s keepers, the pain of the other is my pain – reflected in the African teaching of ubuntu – I am because we are, my humanity is tied up with yours. COVID-19 calls us to renew our commitment to each other for the common good.”
[St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk, an NCR board member, served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. Her recent book, Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity, was awarded first place in the history category by the Catholic Press Association. She holds master’s degrees in nursing and theology.]