Author Archive

April 2021

Written by WISDOM on . Posted in Newsletters

Starting next month the WISDOM Window will no longer be put together by Gail Katz.
Gail, one of the Co-founders of WISDOM, has been the editor of the WISDOM Window since 2006.
She has decided to step aside and let someone else put some new ideas into this newsletter!
So starting in May, Karin Dains, a WISDOM Board member, will be taking charge of putting this newsletter together. So stay tuned and enjoy the different format and different ideas!!
Gail Katz exclaims “It’s been a pleasure constructing the WISDOM Window for so many years!”
He made sure the bodies of the Muslim dead faced Mecca. COVID-19 claimed his life
By GUSTAVO ARELLANOCOLUMNIST
Mahmoud and Rayah Shilleh walked silently across the Islamic Garden at Westminster Memorial Park toward the six-day-old grave of their father, Hashem Ahmad Alshilleh. They passed row after row of identical tombs — plots ringed by concrete curbs and covered in white stones, with raised headstones that serve as the resting place for over 1,500 Muslims. “This is all my father’s legacy,” said Mahmoud, a 25-year-old Corona Police Department officer, as he waited for his siblings to arrive. “It’s just humbling.” For over 30 years, Alshilleh helped to bury a generation of Southern Californian Muslims. The Riverside resident washed and shrouded the corpses of men per Islamic customs and drove the bodies of men and women to cemeteries from Rosamond to Victorville, San Diego to Orange County. The slight but strong truck driver stayed with each body until it was lowered into the ground. He would then climb down to ensure the deceased lay on his or her right side, facing toward Mecca, to await the Day of Resurrection. Afterward, Alshilleh emerged to deal with the living. He broke up arguments, offered gravesite prayers, did whatever grieving families asked of him. He never charged for his services, relying only on donations. In many cases, he’d pool those funds to pay for the funerals of strangers, Muslims and not.
His five children — two police officers, two construction contractors and a nurse — knew their father was an important part of the local Muslim community. But it wasn’t until Alshilleh passed away Jan. 8 at 75 that they realized the magnitude of the man.
“We knew he was a great guy, but talking to people, that’s how we found out he was a legend,” said his oldest son, 33-year-old Ahmad. “Baba stayed quiet about who he was,” said Ahmad’s twin sister, Ayah Shilleh-Velazquez. “We knew what he did, but he just didn’t boast about it.”
“I received over 300 calls from around the world when my dad died,” added Mahmoud. “The messages were all the same. ‘He buried my mother-in-law. He buried my son. He buried my father, my friend.’”
Hashem Ahmad Alshilleh came to his vocation by necessity. As a teenager, he took it upon himself to prepare his father’s body for burial after no one else was available. After that, he promised to God that he would provide the same service to others.(Mahmoud Shilleh)
“There’s no Muslim family in Orange County or the Inland Empire who hasn’t directly benefited from Abu Ahmad’s help,” said Hussam Ayloush, referring to Alshilleh with an Arabic honorific meaning “father of Ahmad.” The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Los Angeles office estimates he has seen hundreds of funerals, “and Abu Ahmad was the person helping in the overwhelming majority of them.” Including those of all his relatives.
Alshilleh came to his vocation by necessity. When he was a teenager, his father died suddenly, and no one wanted to prepare his body. So Alshilleh, as the oldest son of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, took it upon himself to do the task. He asked elders and imams and anyone who might know something, anything. “After that,” said his son Mohammad, “Baba promised God he would do it for others forever.” He continued his charity in the United States — first in New York City, and then Riverside, where he settled in 1993 and promptly volunteered at mortuaries in the Inland Empire. Muslim migration to Southern California was rising, and the funeral industry needed people like Alshilleh. The more bodies he washed, the better and more knowledgeable he became, until he was widely acknowledged as the best of the best. On this day, the last two rows of graves that the Shilleh siblings passed were little more than dozens of mounds of dirt. Framed papers topped each to denote the departed. So many Muslims in the region have died of COVID-19 these last couple of months that there’s simply not enough time right now to fully finish new tombs.
One of those victims was Alshilleh. His grave is one plot over from the last person he buried.
“His good deeds will always protect his family,” said Isa Farrah, who worked alongside Alshilleh at his father’s Olive Tree Mortuary in Stanton since he was a teenager. He greeted the Shilleh siblings and offered his condolences anew. The 30-year-old looked around. “Look at how many people benefited from him. This is what he lived and died for.”
Farrah then paraphrased the Quranic verse that Muslims recite at every burial:
From the earth, we were created.
To the earth, we shall return.
From the earth, we shall rise again.
He said it as everyone jostled for space next to a fence that temporarily abutted Alshilleh’s grave. Next to it, three freshly dug burial plots awaited coffins for later that day.
Goulade Farrah, owner of Olive Tree Mortuary and funeral director for the Islamic Society of Orange County, met Alshilleh 16 years ago. The two became colleagues and fast friends.
“Abu Ahmad was one of those God-sent people,” Farrah said. “I thought I knew what I was doing, but seeing this guy — he was a university.” Farrah recalled multiple times when family members of the dead would complain to him that Alshilleh wasn’t honoring the specific funeral customs of their home countries. “So you’d hear them doing a phone call to someone who they thought knew better,” Farrah said, awe in his voice, “and they’d tell the caller, ‘No, [Alshilleh] is doing it right. Leave him alone.’” Alshilleh eventually left his truck-driving job to prepare bodies full time as demand grew. He taught his sons the basics: Start the ritual bath by washing the right hand three times. Wrap the body in three simple white cloths. Wear personal protective equipment at all times. Be mindful of how to place arms — Sunnis want corpses with their arms crossed over the midsection, while Shiites prefer them on the side.
“He would always tell me, ‘Don’t ever fear death, son,’” said Mahmoud, who apprenticed under him for two years, “‘because it’s all going to be us one day.’”
His children tried to slow down their father as the years passed, but Alshilleh always waved them off. “Baba would say it wasn’t work for him,” said Rayah, a Los Angeles police officer. “That it was a blessing.”
Mohammad Shilleh, left, Rayah Shilleh, Ayah Shilleh-Velazquez and Mahmoud Shilleh offer prayers at the grave of their father. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
But they saw a change in him as the coronavirus swept through Southern California. He could no longer enter burial plots to position bodies toward Mecca. He couldn’t even bathe them with water anymore, instead relying on a different type of purification called tayammum which involved dirt rubbed over the deceased — but now, it had to be done over the body bag.
By the fall, Alshilleh would leave home at 4 a.m. and often wouldn’t return until nine at night.
“He just looked so tired,” Mahmoud said. “He’d say, ‘Everyone I’m burying, it’s all COVID.’”
On Dec. 21, Rayah received a call from the Ontario Police Department that they had found her father disoriented and wandering on the street. He had just finished work and had a bad cough. It was COVID. He died three weeks later. Goulade Farrah prepared Alshilleh’s body, with Mahmoud in attendance. “He was like a father to me,” Farrah said. “It was difficult trying to hold my emotions, because I wanted to do my best for Abu Ahmad.” Farrah rubbed dirt on Alshilleh over the body bag, reciting the proper prayers. And he made sure, of course, to position his mentor toward Mecca, like Alshilleh had made sure to do with the thousands upon thousands of faithful under his care. Over 40 people made sure to show up at Alshilleh’s funeral, socially distant, to fulfill a hadith that stated that if someone had that amount of people praying for them at their burial, Allah would accept their intercession. One of those was Ayloush.
“My biggest regret as an activist is that we didn’t get to honor Abu Ahmad and recognize him while he was alive,” the CAIR L.A. director said. “It breaks my heart. These pioneers are disappearing, people who were selfless and gave with no expectations when the community needed them the most.” Alshilleh’s children plan to start a nonprofit in his memory to pay for the funerals of people who can’t afford them, even though they know their father would’ve frowned at any recognition. “He never called it work,” Ayah said. “He never did it as a source of income. He would always tell us the same thing: ‘I’m not doing it for money. I do it for God.’
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, left, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff.
Faith and the COVID-19 vaccine: ‘I’m a member of a community with duties’
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a theologian and ethicist specializing in medical ethics, talks about what we owe each other when it comes to being vaccinated.
Nearly 9% of Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and with the announcement of a third vaccine in Johnson & Johnson’s new single-dose version, the United States’ campaign is showing promise despite initial stumbles. But more than a third of Americans still say they have no intention of receiving the vaccine or are unsure. It’s well-known that faith leaders can change minds about public health measures. “Congregants are more likely to trust not only their leaders but also those who share their faith, particularly people from their own tradition,” wrote Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Baylor University researcher, in a Religion News Service op-ed last year. To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the former CEO of the Conservative Jewish movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and now a master’s candidate at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health, is interviewing a series of faith leaders about their traditions’ views on public health and vaccination, and this vaccination effort. You can find the entire series here.
This week Schonfeld talks with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Dorff is a theologian and ethicist specializing in medical ethics.
How is health viewed in Judaism? One of the ways I put it is that there’s been a virtual love affair between Judaism and medicine for the last 2,000 years. Many rabbis have also been physicians — Maimonides is probably the most famous, but there were many, many others. There are fewer rabbi MDs now than in times past, but in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 21, when somebody has assaulted somebody else, among the remedies that the assailant has to provide is, “He must surely heal him.” From this, human beings got permission to engage in healing. It’s not taking away God’s prerogative — quite the opposite. In the Torah, quarantine is used to prevent communicable diseases, in Chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Leviticus. In the 18th century, when Edward Jenner created the smallpox vaccine, the question was, should you take it? The answer was yes, you should, because we owe it to each other to prevent diseases not only for ourselves but others.
So there’s a very strong sense in the Jewish tradition that we ought to, to get involved in medicine, both to prevent disease and to cure it both on the clinical level and on the public health level.
Why does that figure so strongly in our faith?
Well, I’m very proud to be American for all kinds of reasons, but the American side of us is that we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights. And among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So I, as an American, I’m an individual with rights. The central Jewish story is at Sinai, we got 613 commandments. So as a Jew, I’m a member of a community with duties. As an American, I’m an individual with rights. If I get up in the morning and I’m an individual with rights, then the world owes me. But if I get up in the morning and I’m a member of a community with duties, then I owe the world. In the American understanding, furthermore, going back at least to the 1990 Nancy Beth Cruzan decision at the Supreme Court, I own my own body. As long as I’m 18 or older, I can refuse any kind of medical intervention. I cannot demand it, but I can refuse it. Whereas in the Jewish tradition, my body belongs to God. I have a fiduciary relationship to God to take care of my body during my life as if I were renting an apartment.
How can faith leaders help communicate this sense of duty to those who are hesitant to take the vaccine? The first thing is public education. This vaccine, unlike the smallpox vaccine or the flu vaccine, has no trace of the virus. Even those vaccines you should take, because we have proven that those vaccines prevent very serious diseases. But they contain forms of the viruses that they’re trying to prevent. This one is not that at all; it works with our DNA. Second, we need to take what public health officials are saying seriously. We need to wear masks whenever we’re outside of our homes. We need to publicly distance, right? We need to wash our hands frequently. We need to do all those things that these public health officials are saying to us, and we need to get vaccinated when it’s our turn.
We hear about “jumping the line” — people who are not yet eligible getting vaccinated or attempting to get vaccinated. Could you address that from a Jewish perspective? I mean, it goes back to “Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” from the Book of Deuteronomy. There is a line because there is a shortage, and the Jewish tradition knows about allocation of scarce resources. Namely, how do you decide among the poor: Who gets what and who pays for it? Jewish communities through the ages were not rich. What emerged in the Jewish tradition is an order of who’s most vulnerable, who are the people that have to be helped first?
That is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tried to do. We need to understand that the most vulnerable are the ones that really need to have that vaccine first. We need to be able to wait in line, even though it’s scary.
The mental health ramifications of COVID-19 have affected everybody. What does Judaism teach about managing the risks? Genesis, Chapter 2, says it’s not good for a person to live alone. We are indeed social animals, as Aristotle put it, and a large part of the mental health piece of this pandemic is that people are feeling very depressed, very isolated. That has led to increased alcoholism, increased family violence. We have seen a real uptick in the need for clinical care. If we did not have Zoom, if we did not have FaceTime, this disease would have been much, much worse.
That said, we should take advantage of the fact that you’re isolated at home. Think about people that you’ve known in your life or that you haven’t talked to in a while. It will brighten your day to get in touch with them, and it will really serve to keep you mentally healthy. In the Jewish tradition, that is part and parcel of what it means to take care of yourself.
Dream of 3 faiths worshipping in one building meets reality in Berlin
Its designers and leaders hope it will be used by Jewish, Christian and Muslim members as a place to pray, worship, gather and, perhaps above all, host a dialogue among their respective religions and with society at large.
An artistic rendering of the House of One design in Berlin. Design by Kuehn Malvezzi, photo by Ulruich Schwarz, courtesy House of OneFebruary 15, 2021
(RNS) — Three religions. One building. The concept could be profoundly simple or particularly complex. For Berlin’s “House of One,” it’s turning out to be a bit of both. Dubbed “the world’s first churmosqagogue” by one Reddit user, the House of One — “the world’s first hybrid church-mosque-synagogue” — will break ground in Berlin on May 27, 2021. By then, it will have been a project 12 years in the making, at an expected cost of at least 47.2 million euro ($57.2).
Its designers and leaders hope it will be used by Jewish, Christian and Muslim members as a place to pray, worship, gather and, perhaps above all, host a dialogue among their respective religions and with society at large. But while the House of One is intended to show that peace is possible among — and through — the world’s so-called “Abrahamic traditions,” some Berliners regard it as an overwrought symbol that has little practical purpose in the heart of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. The idea for the House of One came to Protestant pastor Gregor Hohberg after he discovered the ruins of Berlin’s first church. The late Romanesque building, dating to the 13th century, had been destroyed and reconstructed repeatedly, most recently in World War II, before being torn down during the Cold War. Hohberg wanted to honor the history of the place with a new building, but not just another church. “It had to be something that spoke to Berlin, to our world today.” With the support of his parish, Hohberg sought out Jewish and Muslim partners. First came Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin, later replaced by Rabbi Andreas Nachama, a former rabbi for the American military synagogue in Berlin’s southwest. Then, Imam Kadir Sanci, of the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, joined them.
The three began the slow process of getting to know one another and raising funds for the massive building project. “At first we were conversation partners,” said Sanci, “then we were colleagues, and now we are friends.
“The focus was on togetherness, spending time together, learning together and cooperating on a major construction project,” he added. Hohberg chimed in, “and by cooperating on a major construction project, you learn a lot about people through that!” The three have grown to become more than just friends, said Sanci, but “Seelenverwandte” — or “soul relatives,” who plan to seal their friendship at a groundbreaking ceremony at Petriplatz, in the center of Berlin, in May.
“On our way to peace in heaven, we have the chance to create that here on earth,” said Nachama, “but that’s not to be taken for granted. You have to work at it and build a place for peace on earth.” The House of One’s architectural design has received lots of attention over the last decade. Its layout provides equal space for Jews, Christians and Muslims to pray, worship and gather under its roof. But the emphasis is on the spacious “Begegnungsraum,” or meeting place that connects them, where people of all backgrounds will be invited to build relationships of peace like the one Hohberg shares with Nachama and Sanci.
“In this room,” said Sanci, “the House of One becomes more than a house of prayer, but a house of understanding.” The House of One is not the first attempt at housing the Abrahamic faiths together. The House of Religions in Bern, Switzerland, opened in 2014, and the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2020. The Temple of All Religions in Kazan, Russia, and the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., are both under construction. Other similar meeting places in Haifa, Vienna, and elsewhere have been compared to the House of One.
“This idea is exportable,” said Nachama. “The House of One is just a ‘test-case’ for how we can actually build peace.”
In Tbilisi, Georgia, Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the metropolitan bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia, drew inspiration from the House of One for his own “Peace Project,” which locals also refer to as the House of One. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, center-left in purple, during a service in Tbilisi, Georgia. Courtesy photo Established as the First Baptist Church of Tbilisi in 1867, the Peace Cathedral is the mother church of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. “In the course of its history, Peace Cathedral has repeatedly taken bold stands in support of oppressed minorities,” said Songulashvili, “even as the church has suffered periodic harassment from religious extremists.”
Painfully aware of religion’s role in violent conflicts, such as the recent nearby Nagorno-Karabakh war, Songulashvili’s congregation took the bold step of constructing a mosque and a synagogue attached to its church building, “creating a spiritual home for Abrahamic faiths, including both Sunni and Shia Muslims,” he said. Bishop Ilia Osefashvili said that without the House of One in Berlin’s support, the project could not proceed. More than money, he said, “a project like House of One helps us to build bridges of peace and friendship with other religions. Without it, alienation and hostility are difficult to overcome.”
The House of One has also established a formal partnership with “the House of Peace and Religions” in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, a majority-Christian country where faith has fueled conflict in recent years.
Berlin’s House of One has worked with the country’s cardinal, Dieudonné Nzapalainga; the former president of its Islamic Council, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama; and president of its Evangelical Alliance, Pastor Nicolas Guérékoyaméné-Gbangou, to further efforts at unity.
For all its influence abroad, however, the House of One has faced criticism at home. While the House of One’s intentions are in the right place, various multifaith activists say, the details have been problematic. Some have complained that the exorbitant cost could have been better spent.
An artistic rendering of the central, communal gathering area in the House of One design. Design by Kuehn Malvezzi, image courtesy House of One
Dagmar Apel, pastor and consultant on migration and integration for the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), expressed concerns that the House of One will showcase its founders’ hopes more than bring faiths together in the city.
“We need something that speaks to Berlin on the inside and not just on the outside,” Apel said. “The design is beautiful, but we need a place that is more than a meeting point for tourists, but for true religious exchange.”
Apel, who pastored in Berlin’s diverse Neukölln and Kreuzberg communities, said interreligious work is difficult in the city, especially given Germany’s “disastrous national history.” Berlin, with its diverse, young international mix, can be a place where “Germans can develop a better intercultural competence,” she said, but added that “the House of One lacks grassroots support.”
Apel and others fear that Sanci’s association with Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish imam who founded the Hizmet Movement, will deter many of Berlin’s Muslims. Hizmet describes itself as a “faith-inspired civil society” but has run afoul of the ruling AK Party in Turkey for its supposed political aspirations. It is a lightning rod in the broader German Muslim community, particularly for its large Turkish minority.
“The Gülen movement is not representative of Muslims in Berlin,” said Apel, “and could never be because of the political situation.”
Moreover, said Apel, “where are the Asian religions? The spiritual-but-not-religious? You can’t have a ‘House of One’ without involving people of other religious groups.” Michael Bäumer, the managing director for the Berlin Forum of Religions, agreed that the House of One missed an opportunity by not speaking to Berlin’s broader religious diversity.
“It’s a difficult task to bring different people together for dialogue,” he said, “and a lot of religious people in Berlin aren’t really interested in the House of One.”
As a Buddhist, Bäumer said, “I don’t know why I would go there. They have a lot of work to do to reach beyond the three religions.”
Bäumer has cooperated with the House of One on different multifaith initiatives and admires the leaders’ meaningful multifaith relationship.
“I like the people involved. They are good people and we often talk together. I really like them,” but, when the House of One is finally finished, Bäumer said, “the important question will be whether they can open their relationship of peace to other persons of belief.”
Farmers, agricultural scientists, policy makers address Iran’s Chief Justice and Minister of Agriculture
SYDNEY — Farmers as well as agricultural scientists and policy makers from Australia, Africa and North America have joined the global outcry at the unjust confiscation of lands belonging to Bahá’í farmers in Iran, as the Iranian authorities face mounting criticism over the widespread and systematic persecution of the country’s Bahá’ís.
In an open letter to Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi and acting Minister of Agriculture Abbas Keshavarz, figures in the field of agriculture from several countries across the world—including Canada, Ethiopia, Mali, and the United States—say they are speaking out because they “are concerned about the plight of smallholder farmers throughout the world who often face injustice from arbitrary authority. In an open letter to Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi and acting Minister of Agriculture Abbas Keshavarz, figures in the field of agriculture from several countries across the world—including Canada, Ethiopia, Mali, and the United States—say they are speaking out because they “are concerned about the plight of smallholder farmers throughout the world who often face injustice from arbitrary authority.
“These recent land seizures take place within the context of escalating raids on Bahá’í owned homes and businesses in Iran,” they say, expressing their alarm at the latest stage in the ongoing persecution of the Bahá’ís of Ivel who have been displaced and economically impoverished by Iranian authorities solely because of their religious beliefs.
The open letter states: “We understand that Bahá’í families have farmed land in Ivel for over 150 years and that these families have been constructive members of the local community, by, for instance, starting a school for children of all faiths and by carrying out measures to improve the hygiene and health of all community members.
“Despite their contributions to the community,” the letter continues, “they have faced a series of persecutions throughout the years, characterized by mass expulsion and displacement, and the demolition, bulldozing and confiscation of their homes.”
The signatories call on Chief Justice Raisi and Minister of Agriculture Keshavarz to end the persecution of Bahá’ís, saying, “We write as fellow agriculturists to bring attention to this instance of persecution and urge the Iranian authorities to overturn their decision with regard to the farmers of Ivel.”

March 2021

Written by WISDOM on . Posted in Newsletters

Calendar for WISDOM and Other Upcoming Interfaith Events
Wednesday, March 17th, 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Black Church Film Discussion (see flyer below)
Sunday, March 21, 2:00 p.m (see flyer below)
Charles Wright Museum of African American History: Voting Matters Exhibit
Monday, March 22, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.,
IFLC presents InterFaith Leadership Art and Faith: Robert Kidd Gallery in Birmingham virtually featuring 10 local artists including WISDOM’s Mary Gilhuly.
Tuesday, March 30, 7:00 p.m. -8:30 p.m
History of Medical Racism, with Dr. Oveta Fuller and Dr. Jesslyn Anderson
(see flyer below)
Please join WISDOM’s
RACE & RELIGION: FILM DISCUSSION PBS: BLACK CHURCH
Watch both episodes of Black Church
Each episode contains two entertaining one hour segments with fascinating stories and great music.
The total length is 4 hours.
Available on YouTube or directly on PBS
Aiken Interfaith Partners seek to foster respect, understanding among faiths
On a sunny and brisk morning the second Saturday in January, around a dozen people shuffled through the cemetery at St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church in Aiken, learning about many of the people buried there, including soldiers, artists and dignitaries of the past.The tour was one of a handful of events planned for Interfaith Harmony Month to be held by Aiken Interfaith Partners. Interfaith dialogue fosters mutual respect and harmony between people of differing religions.The tour at St. Thaddeus touched on almost two centuries worth of history at the Episcopalian church. Christianity is just one of many religious faiths represented in the group alongside Buddhism, Islam, the Baha’i faith, Sikhism, Judaism and others.
“I think it’s important that we talk to each other and get to know each other and not have myths and fears based on myths and misunderstandings about each other,” said Bill Collins, chair of the Aiken Interfaith Partners.
“There’s been a great deal of religious violence, or at least violence that seems to use religion as an excuse, in the course of history. You can cite all kinds of examples, and people can be whipped up into a frenzy because of fear of the unknown – the ‘other,’ who is unknown and seems strange and dangerous, and we have to dispel that.” Collins said the only way to have a peaceful society is if people respect, not fear, one another.
If someone is going to learn about another’s religion, learn it from that person, he said. Collins worked to form the local group after getting involved with ecumenism – which seeks to build unity among Christians – through St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Aiken.
Through ecumenism work, Collins got involved with Interfaith Partners of South Carolina and then formed a group in Aiken.
“We’ve been meeting gradually,” he said. “Membership has changed a little bit over time. Couple of people have died, and other people have joined; but we continue. We talk with each other. We work with each other. We really have become friends.” Aiken Interfaith Partners holds events and meetings throughout the year, but especially during January.
“The governor of South Carolina proclaims the month of January as Interfaith Harmony Month,” said Ugur Clare. “Interfaith Harmony Month, we do all kinds of events to celebrate this month, and it’s important to spread peace among our communities and increase understanding among different faith groups, which is sorely needed these days.”
Last year, the Aiken group held an in-person Interfaith Human Library and will hold the event virtually later this month on Zoom.
Clare said the event is a “unique opportunity” where individuals, or readers, can sign up for a 20-minute, one-on-one chat with a person of a certain faith, the book. Around 20 faith traditions will be represented during this year’s event on Jan. 30. Those wishing to sign up to take part in the Aiken virtual Interfaith Human Library may do so at www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0c4dacab2fa2ffc70-aiken.
“I find interfaith dialogues especially important as a Muslim woman that is constantly misunderstood as someone who’s oppressed and misunderstood in the community,” Clare said. “I think it makes it worthwhile for me, at least, if I can talk to a person and answer questions about my faith as well as learn the faiths of other people so we can get over our biases and prejudices.”She said the best way to create peace and harmony is to interact with people of other faiths and understand them.
“If this event doesn’t reach more than one person, but that one person through this event changes or softens their biases about another faith group, it’s worthwhile for me,” Clare said.
Cheryl Nail of Columbia is the chair of Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, and she said many people use interfaith dialogue to point out how people are alike, which is important. More important to her, she said, is respecting and celebrating the differences.
“When you sit down and you listen to people and you take the time to understand what those differences are, you realize it’s those differences that make us a strong state and a strong country and a strong community,” Nail said. Nail aid she has always been involved in interfaith efforts without knowing it. She’s Jewish, and the majority of her friends growing up were not. She mentioned having friends who were Sikh, Christian and Hindu. She said she never understood the significance of that until she was older.
Nail mentioned the 2018 shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and said the first phone calls she received were from friends with Interfaith Partners of South Carolina.
“Those calls not only asked how I was doing but, ‘What can I do for you and your community?’ and they showed up. The showed up not just figuratively, but literally,” Nail said.
Those friends came to the synagogue to pray with them even though they weren’t Jewish. They were there “standing up – solidarity – letting us know that we weren’t alone,” she said.
Dear interfaith colleagues: This collection of 200 dialogue and dialogue-related quotations is gathered from a wide range of sources – ancient and modern. This anthology touches on numerous issues including diversity, pluralism, unity, global consciousness, anti-racism, justice, transformation and listening. You will find these quotations to be useful for group reflection, writing projects, workshops, conferences and as a permanent reference document. Please consider forwarding this document to your colleagues and linking to it on your website:
Teaching the Holocaust at a Christian College
For 16 years, my college classroom put ‘love thy neighbor’ to the test in ways that resonated across religions
By Jack R. Fischel
Messiah University is a Christian college located outside of Harrisburg, in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. A faith-based institution, it is broadly evangelical Christian, but whose student body of 3,300 undergraduate and graduate students also includes a variety of Christian faith traditions (Mennonite, Brethren, a small number of Catholics, and Jews for Jesus, among others). Its faculty is Christian who, upon being employed, sign a contract that states that they adhere to the Apostles’ Creed.
Although Messiah’s students are required to attend 14 chapel services each semester, the school’s curriculum is largely derived from the liberal arts. All juniors and seniors, before they graduate, are required to choose one interdisciplinary course which reflects diverse perspectives that face our society so as to better understand their own faith. Among the seven interdisciplinary courses that students can choose from is “Pluralism in Contemporary Society.” Based in the humanities division, the course expects students to examine from the Christian perspective issues, such as religion, race, ethnicity, gender, class, and how inequality, prejudice, and discrimination impact on their own lives as Christians. In 2003, Messiah College asked me to teach two course sections about the Holocaust during the fall semesters.
Having just retired from Millersville University, where I had taught for 38 years, I found the offer tempting. I had written hundreds of articles in various publications on different aspects of Jewish history and culture as well as published or edited nine books on the Holocaust, including The Holocaust, a book written for college and graduate students.
The challenge of teaching Holocaust at a Christian college reminded me of my experience introducing the first African American history course in Lancaster County, which was subsequently approved in Millersville University’s history curriculum. Unlike teaching Black history, where my color was obvious (I’m white), teaching the Holocaust presented the inverse dilemma: Would students think that my being Jewish would cloud my objectivity? Or could only a Jewish historian convey the tragedy that befell the Six Million? But then I was reminded that non-Jewish scholars like Christopher Browning , Peter Hayes, Peter Longerich, Father Patrick Desbois, Tim Snyder, Susan Zuccotti, among others, have all published important books on the Holocaust. That debate, unfortunately, continues to be argued. I decided not to reveal my religious affiliation because as a professional historian, my ethnicity or religious identity should not matter. For the next 16 years, however, students would subtly—and at times not so subtly—attempt to ascertain whether I was Jewish.
Prior to accepting Messiah’s invitation, I discovered that the offer to teach the Holocaust course was a result of meetings between the college president and the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center (HJCC). It appears that the friendship between Messiah’s president and a member of the HJCC board resulted in Messiah College agreeing not to renew its contract with the Jews for Jesus organization, which for years had contracted with the college for its summer programming. Thus, upon learning that Jews for Jesus was an affront to Jewish identity, the college president agreed, in the name of better relations with the Harrisburg Jewish community, to not only discontinue its summer programming with the Jews for Jesus organization but also to offer a course on the Holocaust.
In the weeks before teaching at Messiah, I received advice from my colleagues at Millersville University that I would find the students would be very “conservative” and narrow-minded, and that they probably believed that the Holocaust resulted from the Jews not accepting Jesus as the Christ. None of this panned out. My experience was that the students, for the most part, were open-minded and sincerely interested in the subject. A large number had been introduced to the Holocaust in high school through their reading of The Diary of Anne Frank and Night by Elie Wiesel. Furthermore, many of my students had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and still others had been on student trips to Dachau and Auschwitz.
As Christians, how can you believe in a just, forgiving, and loving God,
who allows for the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and
In putting my syllabus together, I was mindful that as Christians, my students would approach the Holocaust from their own religious perspective. Indeed, one of my examination questions asked, “What was the obligation of Christians in the face of the persecution and subsequent mass murder of European Jews?” On the first day of class, I challenged students (for extra credit) to write an essay on the New Testament from the perspective of a Jew—how much would they find that constituted anti-Jewish hatred? I also assigned Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies,” which led to a discussion as to how a Christian should react to Luther’s incendiary attacks against the Jews, which included the burning of their synagogues. It dawned on me that questions about Christian culpability for the Holocaust would in fact be more difficult to explore in a public college such as Millersville University or any other liberal arts colleges, lest Christian students take offense.
Required reading for my Messiah students included my own book, The Holocaust, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, Night by Elie Wiesel, and Your Name Is Renée by Stacy Cretzmeyer. The latter book is the story of Ruth Kapp Hartz who survived the Holocaust as a hidden child at age 5 in Vichy France. During the years that I taught at Messiah, Ruth often visited my classes to talk about her childhood experiences growing up hiding, first with a Christian family and then in a convent, where she was raised as a Christian. It was only after the war that Ruth learned that she was Jewish after being reunited with her survivor parents who gradually restored her to Judaism. Students took warmly to her story.
Browning’s book allowed me to raise questions of how ordinary Germans, drafted into German police battalions, raised in a predominately Christian country, and not necessarily harboring anti-Semitic attitudes, could become cold-blooded killers, once they were sent to the eastern front. Students were challenged to discuss whether peer pressure and orders to kill trumped their own Christian upbringing as they were assigned to shoot Jewish men, women, and children. Where was the Christian conscience during the Holocaust? Class discussion surrounding Browning’s use of the term “the circle of human obligation” also forced students to think about the responsibility that bystanders during the Holocaust had toward their Jewish fellow countrymen.
Addressing my students, I asked, would you help people different than you—Muslims, African Americans—and during the Holocaust would they have protested the persecution and mass murder of the Jews? In Nazi Germany, too many German citizens looked the other way as German Jews were deported to the death camps; because of Nazi propaganda they were indoctrinated to believe that Jews were outside their circle of obligation. Additional discussions included Browning’s argument with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, that the Holocaust was Germany’s response to hundreds of years of the teaching of contempt, from religious anti-Judentum to anti-anti-Semitism. If so, does this mean that Christianity was culpable in building the foundation for the Holocaust?
Although a number of students had read Night by Elie Wiesel in high school, I used the book to discuss the question of where God was during the Holocaust. As Christians, how can you believe in a just, forgiving, and loving God, who allows for the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children? Many responded that God gives us “free will,” which resulted in God not interfering in the choices made by his creations. (In Judaism, it compares to the belief that we are given the choice of following our yetzer tov, the good impulse, or yetzer hara, the evil impulse.) A number of students argued that God during the Holocaust suffered along with the Jews.
During my early years at Messiah, we visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum each semester. In part the students payed a modest fee for the bus trip but the larger part of the cost was supplemented by the college. Although a number of my students had visited the museum during their high school years, the trip to the museum provided a more meaningful experience than their first visit. Of the more than 70 students in both of my sections, more than three-quarters attended the trip. An added inducement was that the college allowed them chapel credit for the museum visit. Over the years, because of the uncertainty of exams in their majors, and other factors—field trips, job interviews, etc.—an increasing number of students would cancel their reservations at the last minute. Fewer students made filling a bus more expensive, and in my last years at the college, the cost became prohibitive, and the museum trip was eliminated from the syllabus.
Aside from giving extra credit to students for writing on approved topics relating to the Holocaust, such as film reviews, they were also exposed to documentaries about the Shoah. On the day of the final exam, I showed the documentary that the BBC filmed when the British army liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945, as well as additional concentration camps, where the Allies found and filmed the skeletal bodies of the victims of the Nazi genocide. The film made quite an impression and brought home to my students the horror of the Holocaust.
What lessons did my students appear to learn from the course? The following are a small number of student responses to my question on the responsibility of Germany’s Christians for the Nazi war against the Jews, as well as the reaction of an ostensibly Christian world to the murder of European Jewry. As stated above, I would not have been surprised, as I had been told by my former colleagues, that a number would have answered that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the Jews’ crucifixion of Jesus and rejection of him as the Christ. This response, however, was not forthcoming. Instead, students responded as follows:

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves … that was the same duty that Christians in Germany had in regard to the Jews … we are sinful, selfish humans who look out more for ourselves than for our neighbors … many decided that it was safer to stay within their borders and not reach out to help the Jews in their suffering.

Christians are in some ways blamed/partially responsible for the Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. … Martin Luther wrote horrible things about Jews, In On the Jews and their lies, he wrote, the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their … lineage of circumcision and law must be accounted as filth.” Given this sentiment, it is simple to understand why a divided and crumbling Germany would look to scapegoat a vulnerable group of people like the Jews.

Jesus says that the greatest love you can give someone is to lay down your life for them. This is to me undeniable proof … as a Christian that it was absolutely our responsibility to go into Germany and save as many Jews as possible. Christians have the obligation to fight on the front lines fighting to save even one life.

The Catholic and Protestant churches did little to alleviate the Jew’s suffering: they did not grasp the reality of their responsibility to the Jewish people. The Jewish people are indeed God’s people … and God wants us to care for Jews … Instead of taking responsibility, the church allowed itself to succumb to pluralistic ignorance … rejecting the idea that Jews are less than human as the Nazis suggested. … The least the church could have done was to recognize that the persecution of the Jews was a form of injustice.

I retired in February 2020 after 16 years of teaching the Holocaust. In that time, I reached close to a thousand students. The above responses suggest that exposure to the realities of the Shoah does resonate with believing Christians, who may serve as a counter to rising anti-Semitism in both the United States and Europe.
By Sea of Galilee, archaeologists find ruins of early mosque
The mosque’s foundations, excavated just south of the Sea of Galilee, point to its construction roughly a generation after the death of the Prophet Mohammad.
TIBERIAS, Israel (AP) — Archaeologists in Israel say they have discovered the remnants of an early mosque — believed to date to the earliest decades of Islam — during an excavation in the northern city of Tiberias. This mosque’s foundations, excavated just south of the Sea of Galilee by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, point to its construction roughly a generation after the death of the Prophet Mohammad, making it one of the earliest Muslim houses of worship to be studied by archaeologists.
“We know about many early mosques that were founded right in the beginning of the Islamic period,” said Katia Cytryn-Silverman, a specialist in Islamic archaeology at Hebrew University who heads the dig. Other mosques dating from around the same time, such as the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the Great Mosque of Damascus, and Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, are still in use today and cannot be tampered with by archaeologists.
Cytryn-Silverman said that excavating the Tiberian mosque allows a rare chance to study the architecture of Muslim prayer houses in their infancy and indicates a tolerance for other faiths by early Islamic leaders. She announced the findings this month in a virtual conference. When the mosque was built around 670 AD, Tiberias had been a Muslim-ruled city for a few decades. Named after Rome’s second emperor around 20 AD, the city was a major center of Jewish life and scholarship for nearly five centuries. Before its conquest by Muslim armies in 635, the Byzantine city was home to one of a constellation of Christian holy sites dotting the Sea of Galilee’s shoreline. Under Muslim rule, Tiberias became a provincial capital in the early Islamic empire and grew in prominence. Early caliphs built palaces on its outskirts along the lake shore. But until recently, little was known about the city’s early Muslim past. Gideon Avni, chief archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who was not involved in the excavation, said the discovery helps resolve a scholarly debate about when mosques began standardizing their design, facing toward Mecca. “In the archaeological finds, it was very rare to find early mosques,” he said. Archaeological digs around Tiberias have proceeded in fits and starts for the past century. In recent decades the ancient city has started yielding other monumental buildings from its past, including a sizeable Roman theater overlooking the water and a Byzantine church. Since early last year, the coronavirus pandemic halted excavations and lush Galilean grasses, herbs and weeds have grown over the ruins. Hebrew University and its partners, the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology, plan to restart the dig in February.
Initial excavations of the site in the 1950s led scholars to believe that the building was a Byzantine marketplace later used as a mosque.
But Cytryn-Silverman’s excavations delved deeper beneath the floor. Coins and ceramics nestled among at the base of the crudely crafted foundations helped date them to around 660-680 AD, barely a generation after the city’s capture. The building’s dimensions, pillared floor-plan, and qiblah, or prayer niche, closely paralleled other mosques from the period.
Avni said that for a long time, academics weren’t sure what happened to cities in the Levant and Mesopotamia conquered by the Muslims in the early 7th century.
“Earlier opinions said that there was a process of conquest, destruction and devastation,” he said. Today, he said, archaeologists understand that there was a “fairly gradual process, and in Tiberias you see that.”
The first mosque built in the newly conquered city stood cheek by jowl with the local synagogues and the Byzantine church that dominated the skyline. This earliest phase of the mosque was “more humble” than a larger, grander structure that replaced it half a century later, Cytryn-Silverman said.
“At least until the monumental mosque was erected in the 8th century, the church continued being the main building in Tiberias,” she added.
She says this supports the idea that the early Muslim rulers — who governed an overwhelmingly non-Muslim population — adopted a tolerant approach toward other faiths, allowing a “golden age” of coexistence.
“You see that the beginning of the Islamic rule here respected very much the population that was the main population of the city: Christians, Jews, Samaritans,” Cytryn-Silverman said. “They were not in a hurry to make their presence expressed into buildings. They were not destroying others’ houses of prayers, but they were actually fitting themselves into the societies that they now were the leaders of.”

February 2021

Written by WISDOM on . Posted in Newsletters

Virtual reach of Religious
Diversity Journeys expands education on world religions amid pandemic
The Detroit News
At East Middle School in Plymouth in her seventh-grade social studies class, Shelley Lloyd is using virtual field trips, part of a program called Religious Diversity Journeys, to teach about world religions.
“One of the things I like about it is a live Q&A where they can ask questions that sometimes people are afraid to ask,” Lloyd said. “There is one about Sikhism that’s entitled, ‘11 Things You Want to Know About My Turban but Were Too Afraid to Ask.’ “I think it’s just so wonderful,” she said. “I’m learning about these things, as well.”
Under the auspices of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, Religious Diversity Journeys has expanded in 17 years from the idea of a teacher in Berkley to classes at several schools in Metro Detroit. In 2020, serendipity, a rare phenomenon during the coronavirus, struck. Forced by the pandemic, producers, organizers, videographers and programmers scrambled beginning in March to deliver the learning online, creating virtual field trips and other course material from scratch. Fruit of the labor is a 640%  increase in web traffic to the site of the Interfaith Leadership Council, since Nov. 1. They also had to reconceptualize television productions related to the seventh grade classes, which are airing on the local station of the Public Broadcasting Service, WTVS-TV, including at 7:30 p.m. Monday as part of One Detroit. The classes help fulfill a world religions mandate for seventh grand social studies classes in Michigan. Students said Religious Diversity Journeys provides real-life, interesting lessons outside of the classroom and around diverse communities of Metro Detroit, even if it is virtually, this year.
“I really like the website,” said Kennedy Clawson, a student, who also participated in the staging of some of the virtual field trips. “There’s a lot of things to do, and it really helps learn more about it. “There’s five different religions that you can do. This is about their culture and religion. And, there’s recipes; there’s a lot of information.” Assisting in making videos for the virtual classes, Clawson visited local Sikh and Hindu temples. “I really enjoy just being able to learn more about it,” she said. “For example, now when I’ve learned about Sikhs wearing turbans, when I went outside, I noticed how many people are actually Sikh around me.”
Rania Hammoud, a curriculum coordinator for the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, said the increased impact of the class, forced by a pandemic, is prized.
“We’ve been involved with Religious Diversity Journeys for three years now, and in the past only a small percentage of our seventh grade students were able to participate,” Kozler said. “Now, so many more students and teachers can participate. “As part of Michigan’s seventh grade social studies content expectations, students are already learning about the different world religions,” she said. “Using the RDJ resources obviously makes students make better connections to their learning.”
Before 2020, the program was in extensive use in Canton Township, Dearborn, Farmington, Hamtramck and Plymouth, according to staff at the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Supporting the growth of the program, which its producers say reached 800 students last year, are a number of organizations and foundations, including First Foundation, First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Islamic Relief USA, the Nissan Foundation.
When COVID-19 struck, the financing some schools offer for tuitions for the program was in jeopardy. It also affected the terms of a grant used to bring some of Religious Diversity Journeys to WTVS-TV, public television, in Detroit.
“What we started seeing early in the summer was school boards were zeroing out field trip budgets, said Wendy Miller Gamer, the program director for the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. “We projected very early on this summer that the vast majority of our schools would have no ability to pay tuition.”
Gamer said First Foundation agreed to donate more money to bring the course work and field trips to students virtually. “We had some long-term planning and work that we really spent an intensive summer doing,” Gamer said. “We weren’t scrambling. It was very methodical and very prepared. But, it was an entirely new curriculum and an entirely new platform that we created. “We are extremely proud that we involved 800 kids in our in person program last year,” she said. “This year, with our program online, the potential is tens of thousands of kids.” In addition to shifting the course material entirely online, Gamer and what she described as “a whole bunch of working mothers working on their own time,” recreated the field trips to local churches, mosques and temples that are an integral part of the teaching. “We had to take a look at what happens in a five-and-a-half hour personal field trip and to reverse engineer it, so that each component we wanted to be sure to represent is on the screen,” Gamer said.
And, what student does not like a field trip?
“The basic principles of decreasing barriers of otherness, teaching students about faith from a sociological perspective, teaching kids about the similarities that bridge our faiths and enrich our communities, those messages have not changed,” Gamer said. “But how the message is delivered has changed radically.”
 To “teach culture belief and experience” and share what religion means to an even wider audience, Detroit Public Television applied for a grant to film students doing the course work and taking the field trips, for the One Detroit program.
The grant was approved about the third week of March, when much about how the world does business suddenly changed. The Michigan Humanities Council allowed what in effect was “a pandemic shift” to the way the grant was written, Gamer said.
“Again, we brainstormed, and what we came up with is filming five different communities, and DPTV engaged a local company called Reel Clever Films, and we are working with this documentary film team, and we have filmed four out of five of our journeys.” WTVS is broadcasting what has been produced.
“We are proud to offer this series of spiritual tour, which can help us appreciate our differences while discovering the common threads of conscience and compassion that hold us together as a community,” said Rich Homberg, president of Detroit Public TV. “There is no better portal than visiting the mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, churches and the othe places of worship to learn about each other.”
The teacher who thought of the idea 17 years ago, Gail Katz, is still a member of the board of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Katz said she started teaching English as a Second Language because her mother emigrated from Russia and she also lived with her maternal grandfather growing up. “I heard all the stories about living in a different country, and so many of my members of my grandfather’s family perished in the Holocaust and I heard all those stories,” she said. “I decided that I would devote my career to helping immigrant families.” In 2003, she noticed an article in the Jewish News about a grant that the Jewish Community Relations Council had received for education on world religions and thought it could be something that would be perfect for her students. She ended up running what would come to be called Religious Diversity Journeys.
“In 2006, the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion took it over,” Katz said. “Fast forward to 2013, that is when the Interfaith Leadership Council took it over. “I had retired from teaching, and I was very involved with the education committee of the Interfaith Leadership Council to take it over. What a perfect educational opportunity,” she said. “It was a wonderful program, and I am so happy the IFLC took it over. It has grown from 160 students in 2003.”
The legacy of Katz’s conception is now a sprawling educational and media initiative.
“My hope is that when we send kids to this program that they learn two things,” said Lisa Kozler, a teacher at East Middle School in Plymouth. “One is compassion and the other is that we are more alike than we are different.
“And then, my hope is that they come back to school and share it.”
Spirituality in Solitude’ program on Zoom to emphasize connection in pandemic
By Stephanie Preweda, Special to Digital First Media
Oakland Press
Over the past 10 months, religious leaders have been coming up with creative ways to keep communities connected through prayer virtually. For many worshippers, virtual prayer is not enough.
The InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit hosted the online panel “Spirituality in Solitude,”on Jan. 27, which focused on ways of coping with isolation and loneliness.
Five panelists represented different faith perspectives including Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, Muslim and Buddhist. Each panelist was provided a list of topics and questions to speak on. Some included different challenges with personal spiritual practice and engagement and new ways or adjustments of worship.
Bloomfield Hills resident Gail Katz has dedicated her life to interfaith work and remains active with different organizations as co-founder of Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialog and Outreach in Metro Detroit, the educational committee chair for the Interfaith Leadership Council and chairwoman for World Sabbath.
For this active woman, putting everything on hold for the last 10 months has proven difficult.
“I’m always putting together panels and events, I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” she says. “Since the pandemic, I’ve been viewing Shabbat services online and there’s something missing, I want to go to my synagogue and be in the sanctuary and see my friends.”
Expressing her feelings of loneliness with fellow committee members helped generate the idea of offering a panel of speakers to discuss ways of coping with spiritual isolation. The goal of the discussion is to find different ways people can reconnect with their faith, religion and community while staying home.
As a way of coping, Katz signed up for weekly online Zoom classes focused on the Torah. She says the sessions were a way to dive deeper into and connect with her spirituality.
The Rev. Wendy Van Tassell of Saugatuck, the panelist representing Christianity, also found solace is signing up for Bible study sessions via Zoom.
“It’s important to lean into online apps and resources that provide a grounding and direction,” she says. “When people are forced to shelter in place they start asking questions about priorities and spirituality.”
Van Tassell retired in June as co-pastor with her husband,Tom, at First Congregational Church in Iowa. They decided to move to Michigan to be closer to family and their first grandchild.
“We all have a longing to find answers and part of that is finding a balance and attending to mind, body and spirit,” she says.
Above all, Katz hopes hearing others talk about their struggles with spirituality during the panel discussion will give viewers a sense of connection by knowing they are not alone during this pandemic.
For more information about Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit visit, detroitinterfaithcouncil.com.
Temple Israel Sisterhood and Hartford Women United got together on Tuesday, January 12th to talk about the book Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit. These women have been connecting with each other as Jewish and Christian women for about six years now to get to know each other, share their personal stories, learn about each other’s faith traditions, and do community service projects together. They will meet again next month to continue talking about the book, learning about the history of social change in Detroit due to some of the African American Baptist ministers who have made such a major difference!!
What four strangers of different faiths learned while living together during a pandemic
Hadar Cohen, Ala’ Khan, Maya Mansour and Jonathan Simcosky were chosen as fellows for an interfaith experiment known as the Abrahamic House. They come from different faiths: Baha’i, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
The four fellows of Abrahamic House, Hadar Cohen, from left, Ala’ Khan, Maya Mansour and Jonathan Simcosky share a Christmas greeting from their residence in Los Angeles. Courtesy photoJanuary 12, 2021
LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Nearly a year ago, four young people of different faiths — Baha’i, Christianity, Islam and Judaism — moved into a Los Angeles home as part of a new interfaith experiment known as the Abrahamic House.
Hadar Cohen, Ala’ Khan, Maya Mansour and Jonathan Simcosky were chosen as fellows for this project, in which they kept their day jobs and lived rent-free, while organizing and hosting public interfaith events and programs.
They moved in just weeks before the coronavirus outbreak sparked stay-at-home orders across country, settled in amid the uprisings ignited by the police killing of George Floyd and are leaving the house just days after supporters of President Donald Trump besieged the U.S. Capitol.
The four officially wrapped up their fellowship on Sunday (Jan. 10) with a virtual graduation where they shared the lessons they learned from one another during the tumultuous year. The application process for a new round of fellows, who are expected to move in in August, will open in May. People from all over the U.S. are encouraged to apply.
Mohammed Al Samawi, a Muslim man from Yemen who founded the Abrahamic House, reflected on the deadly occupation at the Capitol, in which religious imagery and conspiracy theories played center stage, and highlighted how interfaith work can help dispel misinformation and stereotypes. His vision for this project, he said during the virtual graduation, was to have people of different faiths not only celebrate their similarities and differences, but also “speak about the truth, only the truth, not conspiracy theories.” Al Samawi, who now lives in Los Angeles, endured threats for his interfaith advocacy in Yemen that he recounted in his memoir, “The Fox Hunt.”
Back in the spring, the fellows spoke to Religion News Service about how they were adjusting to California’s public health orders and to each other’s religious practices, like fasting in preparation for the Baha’i new year or honoring Shabbat, a day of rest.
The way Mansour, of the Baha’i faith, sees it, “We’ve been given such a year that’s ripe with opportunity to show up for each other in solidarity,” she said on Sunday.
The fellows, during their graduation, spoke about the initial difficulties of celebrating Easter, Ramadan, Passover and Ridvan, a Baha’i observance, in April amid quarantine and without their respective communities.
To Simcosky, a book editor who is Christian, bringing in these diverse experiences during their first full month at the house “was a powerful opening to the year.”
For Cohen, celebrating the Jewish holidays without her community was challenging.
“For all the fellows, the holidays are the time where we really get into our spiritual faith and into our community,” she said.
However, Cohen added, “it did provide us opportunity to show up for each other and to learn what is important about the holidays for one another.”
Khan, a filmmaker who is Muslim, spoke fondly of “Religion 101″ classes the fellows held for each other to not only learn historical context, but also how “we connect with each of our faiths and our personal practices and how it manifests in our daily lives.”
“That felt really special and really important because no one religion is monolithic. There’s such diversity within religion,” Khan said during their graduation. “To understand someone’s personal grounding in that was really special.”
Throughout the year, the fellows hosted more than 30 programs that included a documentary screening on Zoom about a binational day of prayer at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego with Muslim and Christian leaders; a virtual multifaith feminism event in honor of Shavuot, a Jewish holiday that celebrates wisdom, by staying up all night to learn; and an online artist talk series featuring women of color and how spirituality influences their work.
Aside from hosting these events, living under the same roof also enabled the fellows to have nuanced conversations about issues unraveling around them. They said they spoke often about how to best look out for each other’s safety during the pandemic, what it means for a Black person to live through the social upheaval they were experiencing, and how Muslim and Jewish people face Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Race and religion and religious oppression were common issues of discussion.
For Simcosky, being an ally to people of different faiths and races “has to be an authentic expression of care for the community.”
“It comes through proximity and through sharing all these experiences, and through a curiosity of learning about what is challenging,” he said on Sunday.
Khan, on Sunday, shared how these conversations were a reminder “not to have assumptions and to just listen.”
“We had to get really real and really listen to each other,” she said.
To Mansour, it was significant that the Baha’i faith, which normally isn’t included in interfaith work, was part of the fellowship. That’s why it was important for Mansour to amplify the voices of other faiths not represented in the fellowship, like the selfless service of the Sikh community, which the fellows highlighted through a documentary screening.
The fellows on Sunday shared how the Abrahamic House helped them realize the importance of sharing their faith more openly with others.
At the Abrahamic House, Cohen said, she became aware of how much she has kept her “Jewishness hidden” because “there’s a lot of fear, the hatred that comes with it.”
Khan said the Abrahamic House helped deepen her relationship with her own faith. Now, she feels more comfortable sharing her religious practices with the people around her, who are mostly not Muslim.
“I feel like I’m taking a confidence about sharing more specific practices with others,” she said.
Seven Women Artists of Color Have Honored Kamala Harris’s Inauguration With a Video Celebrating
the Roots of Her Historic Triumph
The ambitious video art project was filmed by artists around the country.
Sarah Cascone, January 19, 2021
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons in her art performance piece When We Gather, a tribute to the inauguration of Kamala Harris. Photo by Tommy Oliver courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
A group of seven women artists of color are collaborating to mark the inauguration of Kamala Harris as America’s next vice president with When We Gather, a new artwork presented by New York public art nonprofit Creative Time.
The idea for the project first came to Afro-Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons the day the November election was called in favor of Joe Biden and Harris.
In her acceptance speech, the vice president-elect—the first woman, the first Black person, and the first person of South Asian descent to hold the post—thanked her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who moved to the US from India at just 19 years old.
“Harris claimed this moment for ‘the generations of women—Black women, Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment,’” Campos-Pons said in a statement. “She called on us all: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, girls; cis and trans, to celebrate with her. When We Gather is our collective answer to her invitation.”
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons in her video art performance piece When We Gather, a tribute to the inauguration of Kamala Harris. Photos by Tommy Oliver courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Inspired by the Yoruba religious rituals of her childhood, Campos-Pons envisioned a circle of women of all ages and ethnicities, clad in Suffragist white and dancing around the White House. She knew that executing such a piece live in DC on Inauguration Day would be impossible due to security concerns and the realities of the global health crisis, so she quickly reimagined the performance as a film.
That allowed her enlist artists from cities across the county to take part: Okwui Okpokwasili, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Dell Marie Hamilton, Jana Harper, Lisa E. Harris, and Samita Sinha, for a total of seven women—one for each of the seven powers in the Yoruba religion.
Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco, which represents Campos-Pons, immediately got behind the project, with Norris signing on to executive produce the film.
When We Gather director Codie Elaine Oliver with cinematographer Tommy Oliver. Photo by Rodney Marsh, courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris.
Codie Elaine Oliver, co-creator of the documentary series Black Love, served as the film’s director, traveling to cities including Nashville, Houston, and Brooklyn to shoot each segment individually. She wove the resulting footage together with historic photographs of women, concluding with a portrait of Harris.
The three-minute film is overlaid with a poem by Diggs, a poet and sound artist, that is narrated by actress Alfre Woodard. Though the seven dancers are separated by vast distances, the video joins them together in a circular dance, with choreography by Okpokwasili, a performance artist.
“This performance presents us all with an opportunity to take part in healing and uniting our divided country through positive action and through the strength and ability of women, starting with the vice president,” Norris said in a statement.
When We Gather director Codie Elaine Oliver with Jana Harper. Photo by Tommy Oliver courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
She hopes that the project, which was produced with funding from the Ford Foundation, will tour museums and universities.
When We Gather will premiere online at 7 p.m. on January 27, one week after Biden and Harris are sworn into office, and runs through February 15. The website also includes interviews with the participating artists and invites viewers to create and upload their own videos inspired by the piece.
“When We Gather arrives at an inflection point—serving as both a moment of reflection and a galvanizing call to envision, and enact, a better tomorrow,” Creative Time executive director Justine Ludwig said in a statement. “The work speaks to the elemental role that women have played in the progress of this nation.”
Dear interfaith colleagues: This collection of 200 dialogue and dialogue-related quotations is gathered from a wide range of sources – ancient and modern. This anthology touches on numerous issues including diversity, pluralism, unity, global consciousness, anti-racism, justice, transformation and listening. You will find these quotations to be useful for group reflection, writing projects, workshops, conferences and as a permanent reference document. Please consider forwarding this document through your network or linking to it on your website:

January 2021

Written by WISDOM on . Posted in Newsletters

  • Calendar for WISDOM and Other Interfaith Events
Wednesday, January 27th, 7:00 PM IFLC interfaith panel Spirituality in Solitude – See information below!
Thursday, January 28th 7:00 PM. Mainstream & Margin – Racism Workshop on Zoom
February Date TBD – Sisters’ Circle – Virtual Tai Chi
Sunday March 7th 3-5 PM International Women’s Day – Featuring Stories of Women of color on Zoom
The InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit Presents
SPIRITUALITY IN SOLITUDE
HOW WE ARE COPING WITH OUR FAITH, OUR SPIRITUAL PRACTICE,
AND OUR LONELINESS DURING THIS PANDEMIC
Panelists will discuss the challenges facing their spiritual practice
during COVID-19
January 27th, 2021
7:00 PM
Our panelists will include:
DR. PAULA DREWEK – BAHA’I
SUZANNE LEVIN – JEWISH
REV. WENDY VAN TASSELL – CHRISTIAN
DR. SAEED KHAN – MUSLIM
DHARMANANDA BHIKKHU – BUDDHIST
REV. DR. CHARLES PACKER – MODERATOR
REGISTER BELOW BY JANUARY 25, 2021
THE ZOOM LINK WILL BE SENT TO YOUR EMAIL AFTER REGISTRATION.
YOU ARE WELCOME TO MAKE A FREEWILL DONATION TO THE
INTERFAITH LEADERSHIP COUNCIL BY GOING TO THEIR WEBSITE AT
We look forward to seeing you on Zoom on
Wednesday, January 27th at 7:00 PM
SYDNEY, 25 November 2020, (BWNS) — How can a society with diverse views on history, culture, and values—some seemingly at odds with each other—forge a common identity that transcends differences and does not privilege some groups or diminish the worth of others?
The Bahá’ís of Australia embarked on a two-year project to explore this and related questions with hundreds of participants—including officials, organizations of civil society, journalists, and numerous social actors—across all states and territories.
A new publication titled Creating an Inclusive Narrative is the fruit of these discussions and was launched last week at a five-day national conference on social cohesion and inclusion held by the country’s Bahá’í Office of External Affairs.
In the opening session of the conference, Governor of New South Wales Margaret Beazley reflected on the important role that government and institutions can play in strengthening bonds among citizens.
“The inclusivity of the discussions that led to the excellent Bahá’í document Creating an Inclusive Narrative… is in itself an excellent example of an institution taking the time and the steps to engage in a multi-level process of discourse with people of diverse backgrounds, genders, abilities and disabilities, culture, and faiths.”
In another session of the conference, Member of Parliament Anne Aly quoted Bahá’u’lláh’s statement “The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” She continued, “I think that’s the starting point for social cohesion. To see ourselves all as equal citizens of a world that goes beyond national borders, that goes beyond the differences of race, the differences of religion, the differences of social or economic status.
“This is what attracts me most to the Bahá’í Faith. This central tenet of the equality of mankind.”
Initiating a process of learning
Ida Walker of the Office of External Affairs describes how the project began: “In 2016, the discourse on social cohesion was emerging prominently on the national stage. There was a great need at that time—and still now—for unifying spaces in which people could explore this issue, free of limitations—to have enough time, without dominating voices, where people could listen and be heard.”
By 2018, the Office of External Affairs had become more engaged in this discourse. With the encouragement of different social actors and government departments, the idea for Creating an Inclusive Narrative began to take shape.
“We knew that the process had to involve diverse voices from different realities throughout the country—east and west, rural and urban, and from the grassroots to the national level. And in order for this to scale, we needed many people who could facilitate,” says Ms. Walker.
By mid-2019, small gatherings were being held in a few states. As more facilitators from different regions of the country were identified, more gatherings could be held. Ms. Walker explains: “Orientation sessions allowed facilitators to reflect deeply on the qualities and attitudes that would be required for creating unifying spaces. These sessions provided them with opportunity to think about how they could ask probing questions.
“It was important that facilitators were residents of the areas in which gatherings were taking place, ensuring their familiarity with local issues and concerns. This approach, to our surprise, meant that facilitators and participants could continue their discussions in between the monthly gatherings, resulting in growing enthusiasm and interest among participants to continue the process.”
The project eventually sustained monthly gatherings concurrently across several states, resulting in a total of 50 roundtables.
“If Australia is a work in progress, then how willing are we to create something new?”
Ms. Walker explains further that promoting diversity in all spheres of society, although essential, is not enough alone to bring people closer together or create consensus on vital matters. “Stories of indigenous peoples, European settlers, and more recent migrants must be voiced, but also reconciled.
“When the Office of External Affairs first began to engage in the discourse on social cohesion, we heard many social actors say that these stories were running alongside one another but not woven together. This project has allowed different segments of society to discover a narrative that would allow all the people of our country to see themselves on a common journey.”
Early on in the project, participants in the process discussed how any attempt to transcend differences would need to address the question of history. Drawing on the rich insights from these conversations, Creating and Inclusive Narrative begins with this topic in a section titled “Where have we been?”, calling attention to the rich and ancient history of the land and highlighting the challenges and opportunities of present times:
Identifying shared values
Participants in the project recognized that although difficult at first, identifying common values would be necessary to overcoming barriers to greater degrees of harmony. Venus Khalessi of the country’s Bahá’í Office of External Affairs describes the effect the pandemic has had on the ability of the participants to develop a greater sense of shared identity. “At first, there was hesitation from participants to speak about values out of the fear of offending others. But as the pandemic hit, everyone saw that when faced with crisis, people became more kind, more generous, and more open to strangers. This had a significant impact on how we saw ourselves as a society and on our ability to articulate the kinds of values we wished to see lasting beyond the crisis. Our shared human values became a reference point, including spiritual principles such as justice, compassion, and our inherent oneness.”
Some of the values, qualities, and characteristics identified by participants and captured in the publication include: the oneness of humanity and unity in diversity; consultation as a means for collective decision-making; recognizing the nobility and dignity of all people; collaboration, a posture of learning in all matters, and an openness to new ways of living.
Broadening the conversation
Ms. Walker explains how this experience has revealed that the challenge to finding common ground is not a lack of shared values, but rather that there is a lack of spaces where people can come to know one another at a deeper level. She says, “The problems we are experiencing cannot be solved by one group for another. We see so much capacity in the country that can be released simply by providing spaces where shared values and vision can be fostered and translated into action. Many people, by being part of the round-table process, have strengthened their resolve to contribute to society.”
Brian Adams, director of the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University in Queensland, who also served on the Advisory Board for Creating an Inclusive Narrative, says of the project: “We are not trying to artificially create a broad identity. We are trying to tease out the threads that make up our identity and weave them together into this narrative. … [this process] is something that is done through collaboration and respectful listening, and a lot of work to create that identity together.”
Natalie Mobini, director of the Bahá’í Office of External Affairs and a member of the Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly of Australia, explains the possibilities for engaging many more segments of society as a result of the relationships that have built among institutions, government, and civil society through this process. “When the Office of External Affairs embarked on this initiative, I don’t think we realized how big it would become. One of the project’s most promising outcomes is the relationships built among those who have participated. A network of people spanning the country—from groups and community leaders at the local level to state and national government departments—has emerged.”
The Creating an Inclusive Narrative document, recordings of conference sessions, and more information about the project can be found on the website of the Australian Bahá’í community’s Office of External Affairs.
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Seventeen students. Two religiously divided universities. A quest to bridge gaps.
by Eboo Patel
That was the starting point of a revolutionary program, the results of which were just published in the Journal of College and Character. The schools were Oberlin College, a bastion of liberal thinking, and Spring Arbor University, a predominantly conservative, Christ-centered institution. Students from these universities participated in a unique, multi-week program supported by my organization, the Interfaith Youth Core. Led by Bridging the Gap founder Simon Greer, participants spent several days at their schools learning practical ways to find common ground, and then spent eight days living together and engaging in activities to explore each other’s values, political views, faiths and more. They also completed a collaborative project on .
The results were remarkable. Students reported that the program helped solidify their belief in the importance of engaging with people with different viewpoints. Most students indicated they would very likely use the skills learned in the course to navigate different viewpoints from others in their lives – and to have more respect for people who come from vastly different backgrounds. There’s an important lesson to be learned from this experience: Interfaith education and engagement can help bridge gaps between different groups at a time where the country is divided like never before. Unfortunately, our often don’t provide this urgently needed type of education.
Religious diversity is increasing
Our nation is growing more and more religiously diverse. As the share of people identifying as Christian declines, the proportion of people identifying as Buddhists, Jews and Muslims is rising, according to a 2019 Pew analysis. The number of religiously unaffiliated people – which includes people who identify as atheist, agnostic, secular, or spiritual also is climbing significantly. Unfortunately, with this growing diversity, tensions between groups are high. More than four in five Americans believe Muslims experience discrimination, according to a 2019 Pew study. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds think Jews face discrimination – a 20 point jump from three years prior – and half of Americans think evangelical Christians do. Disturbingly, these biases can manifest in violence. Nearly one in five hate crimes are grounded in religious bias, according to the FBI. Los Angeles County recently reported an 11% surge in religious-based hate crimes.
It’s crucial that we work to bridge gaps between religious groups, and colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to help. After all, college provides many young people with their first – and potentially only – chance to have meaningful interactions with people of different religious, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and develop a better understanding of others’ beliefs and worldviews. By equipping students with the skills to bridge divides, graduates can enter the real world prepared to engage productively with others. Many universities simply aren’t capitalizing fully on this opportunity. That’s the finding of a recently completed study – the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, which surveyed thousands of students at more than 100 universities during their four years in school.
Religious differences aren’t addressed
Researchers found that students spend a significant amount of time learning about people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, political affiliations and sexual orientations, but markedly less time learning about people of different religions. For example, 74% of students have dedicated time to learning about people of a different race or ethnicity, and most students spent time learning about people with different political views and sexual orientations. Meanwhile, just 40% of students devoted time to learning about Jews and evangelical Christians, 27% spent time learning about Hindus, and only 22% spent time learning about Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Moreover, only 65% of students reported trying to build relationships with people who hold religious or non-religious beliefs that they disagree with. More than 60% of students feel that people on their campuses interact primarily with their own religious or worldview communities. And one-third of college seniors did not feel confident in their ability to negotiate challenging conversations with people who hold different views.
Fortunately, as the Oberlin-Spring Arbor program proves, there are ways that schools can turn this around. For one, they can make interfaith experiences mandatory. Students who participate in at least one curricular experience focused on religious diversity are far more likely to develop skills to manage interfaith relationships. Institutions can also provide more opportunities for informal interaction between religiously diverse students. Creating campus spaces for students to express their views freely can go a long way as well. Our society needs to make progress in bridging interfaith gaps. Higher education can help.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, whose Courageous Pluralism program is designed to bridge divides on campuses. He’s also the author of “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.”
Disturbingly, these biases can manifest in violence. Nearly one in five hate crimes are grounded in religious bias, according to the FBI.
Indian women perform rituals while standing inside an artificial pond for the Chhat Puja festival in Mumbai, India, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Health officials have warned about the potential for the coronavirus to spread during the upcoming religious festival season, which is marked by huge gatherings in temples and shopping districts. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
May 24, 2012, file photo, Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej holds a cross during a procession marking the feast of Belgrade’s patron saint, Spasovdan, in downtown Belgrade. Serbia’s Orthodox Church said Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, the leader, Patriarch Irinej, has died after testing positive for the coronavirus. He was 90. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UN Women speaking at a World Bank event on March 9, 2017.
Including women in peacekeeping will help advance the United Nations’ Global Goals to achieve gender equality, end conflicts, and eradicate global poverty. Join us and take action on this issue here.
Last month, United Nations leaders said that women continue to be underrepresented in key decision-making opportunities on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of Security Council resolution 1325 on women and peace and security. This landmark resolution in 2000 confirmed the importance of women participating in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and in post-conflict reconstruction, the UN noted. But UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka says that there is a need for the global community to recommit itself to including women in peacebuilding processes today.
Between 1992 and 2019, only 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators, and 6% of peace agreement signatories around the world were women, Mlambo-Ngcuka said at a Security Council meeting. However, research from UN Women shows that the chances of peace agreements lasting more than two years increase by 20% when women participate in the process. The COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasized the importance of involving women in conflict and crisis management.
Studies show that women are most affected by COVID-19 and often bear the brunt of economic disasters and conflicts around the world. During the pandemic, women are more at risk as they are on the front lines of medical aid and are more likely to work in industries impacted by shutdowns.
“Women are still systematically excluded, confined to informal processes, or relegated to the role of spectators, while men sit in the rooms that will define their lives and decide their future,” Mlambo-Ngcuka saidAround the world, women have been serving as the frontline responders on the local level in their communities. Their work as doctors, nurses, teachers, farmers, and in other important industries, has been vital in keeping communities, economies, and societies running amid the pandemic.
“We have seen the remarkable success that many women leaders have had in containing the pandemic while supporting people’s livelihoods,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech last month. “This confirms an obvious truth: institutions, organizations, companies, and yes, governments work better when they include half of society, rather than ignoring it.”
To try and develop meaningful participation and engagement among women peacebuilders, UN Women outlines five goals. Some of the goals include reversing the upward trajectory in global military spending, allocating 15% of official development assistance to advancing gender equality, and unconditionally defending women’s rights around the world.
Buddhist temple attacks rise as COVID-19 amplifies anti-Asian American bias
Incidents have included vandalism of temples and Buddhist statues outside private homes, as well as verbal harassment of Asian Americans at their houses of worship.
Recent vandalism at the Huong Tich Temple in the Little Saigon neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo and security footage via Huong Tich Temple
December 10, 2020
  • (RNS) — A few weeks after Thai Viet Phan was elected the first Vietnamese American City Council member in Santa Ana, a town south of Los Angeles, she discovered that the Huong Tich Temple, in the city’s Little Saigon neighborhood, had been vandalized. As a child she had spent her weekends at the Buddhist temple, learning prayers, traditional dances and how to read and write in Vietnamese.
  • Last month, 15 of the temple’s Buddha and bodhisattva statues had been spray-painted. The word “Jesus” in black letters had been emblazoned down one statue’s back.
  • “Throughout COVID, I know that there has been an increase in anti-Asian Pacific Islander sentiment and hate crimes, and I see that on social media, but I personally haven’t experienced it,” Phan said.
  • When she found out what happened at Huong Tich Temple, she said, “I was shocked that anyone would do that. … It was really abhorrent.”
  • Phan reached out to other local elected officials and discovered that Huong Tich wasn’t alone: Five other Buddhist temples in Little Saigon had been defaced in November.
  • “This is a hate crime, not just vandalism,” she said.
  • Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, a City Council member in Garden Grove, a neighboring city that serves as home to parts of Little Saigon, said the attacks, coming when worshippers typically visit temples often to pray for prosperity in the new year, have increased anxiety in the Vietnamese American Buddhist community
  • The attacks also come as the pandemic — especially President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about COVID-19’s origin in China — has unleashed a wave of anti-Asian hate and xenophobia in the U.S.
  • Smashed Buddha statues at Wat Lao Santitham, a temple in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Photos courtesy of Richard Saisomorn
  • This year there have been 17 reports of hate incidents at Asian American Buddhist sites, according to Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University.
  • Jeung, who runs the group Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, a self-reporting center that’s been tracking cases of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia in the U.S. since March, said the incidents included vandalism of temples and Buddhist statues outside private homes, as well as verbal harassment of Asian Americans at their houses of worship.
  • Funie Hsu, an assistant professor of American studies at San Jose State University, said this year’s attacks were “not a surprise.” Asian Americans have historically been perceived as foreign or unable to assimilate. Religion, said Hsu, has been considered a barrier to their acceptance since the Chinese immigrants who first came to the U.S. in the 19th century were called “heathen Chinese.”
  • Temple vandalism is a common expression of hate toward Asian Americans in general. In Massachusetts in 1984, three Vietnam War veterans burned down a Tibetan Buddhist temple after expressing dissatisfaction with the services they received through Veterans Affairs.
  • But vandalism against Buddha statues, she said, is most common since many consider them an affront to Christianity. “A lot of times they serve as a punching bag for any form of animosity people are feeling against Asians,” Hsu said, which is why so many attacks have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • No hate incidents at Asian American churches were reported this year, Jeung said.
  • In April at Wat Lao Santitham, a temple in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a man walked onto the grounds with a hammer and smashed three statues of the Buddha, causing $20,000 damage. The police were called, and as they arrested the suspect, according to body camera footage, he told them, “It’s a false idol, it’s a false monument.”
  • Richard Saisomorn, a board member for Wat Lao Santitham, said the damage goes far beyond the attack. Until the statues are replaced, the mostly Southeast Asian immigrants and second- and third-generation Americans who attend the temple are without a place where they can pray for their ancestors.
  • Despite the installation of cameras and other security measures, the temple’s community now fears for the safety of the monks who live inside the building.
  • “Everybody feels very sad — it’s something that should not happen,” Saisomorn said. “We’ve already survived a very tough time from COVID-19, which is hard enough.”
Bob Fisher has a tent and a sign in his yard, encouraging people to take part in the Interfaith Outreach Sleep Out.
INTERFAITH OUTREACH LAUNCHES
“BE LIKE BOB” CHALLENGE
Minnesota’s winters can be picturesque and beautiful. But as anyone can attest, they can also be harsh and unforgiving.
“I’m not adaptable to winter,” said Bob Fisher of Wayzata. “I don’t like winter very much.” Yet despite Bob Fisher’s distaste of the season, he came up with an idea 25 years ago to set those feelings aside and sleep in a tent on the front lawn of his Wayzata home; all with a greater purpose in mind.
“You and most everybody else would not think there’s a whole lot of needy people around Wayzata, but there are,” he said. “That right over [across the street] is The Boardwalk, and that’s Section 8 housing right there.”
What started as a one-man effort with Bob and his tent 25 years ago to help his neighbors, evolved into an annual sleep out campaign involving Plymouth-based Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners.
“We’ve gotten thousands and thousands of people to sleep out in their tents, to get involved financially,” he said. “To open their homes. to do whatever, bring in food, millions of pounds of food every year that we get in.”
In those 25 years, Interfaith Outreach has raised more than $32 million to help fight poverty, hunger and homelessness.
“And in the 25 years that the sleep out has been going on, we’ve prevented homelessness 34,200-some times,” Fisher said. “So you could darn near fill Target Field.” Now, the hope is that others will follow Bob’s example. This year, Interfaith Outreach is asking people to take the ‘Be Like Bob Challenge.’ They can donate online, they can encourage their friends to participate. they can put up signs in their yard, or they could set up a tent and organize their own sleep out.
“So we’re asking people to be careful,” Fisher said. “Sleep in a house, whatever. Go sleep in your garage. Sleep in your car.”
The idea is for people to get out of their comfort zones while raising awareness for the needs in the area.
And while Bob admits that his days of sleeping in a tent during the winter have passed, he’s encouraging others to do it between now through the end of December. “That’s always been my goal is just to get people aware and then get them involved,” he said.
Interfaith couples attending this Waukesha synagogue are bringing their Christmas traditions with them
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
WAUKESHA – You don’t have to tell Deborah Martin about that other December holiday that everyone seems to make such a fuss about.
Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha’s cantor and spiritual leader, along with most of the Jewish temple’s members, doesn’t look at the Christmas season as something immaterial to the congregation. The common ground each religion shares is worthy of consideration at this time of the year, Martin noted.
In fact, within the 80-family congregation whose membership stretches from Lake Country to the city of Milwaukee, there’s more than a few marriages straddling the theological fence, she said.
It’s just that Hanukkah is the focus of their religious celebration each December.
Hanukkah is based on a piece of Jewish history dating back to 164 BC, following a successful revolt led by Judah Maccabee against Syrian rule in their homeland.
“It’s really a minor holiday, but the message behind it is really important today, because it’s a message about religious freedom,” Martin said shortly before the start of the eight-day Jewish holiday, which this year began Dec. 10. “The Syrians had forbidden the Jews from observing their religion and turned their temple into a Greek temple and desecrated it.”
According to scholars, as devout Jews began a process to rededicate their temple in Jerusalem, they believed they only had enough olive oil to burn in the temple menorah for one night. Instead, it lasted for eight, filling the time needed for a fresh supply. But, religious traditions aside, Martin said the holiday serves another purpose that is shared by Christians. It represents a season of giving.
“Whenever we have a holiday like this, we do try to help the poor,” Martin said. “We usually bring gifts, either food or it could be money. We always give to charity during holidays.”
That effort this year is formally tied to a multi-denominational group called BEGIN — the Brookfield Elm Grove Interfaith Network, which Congregation Emanu-El has previously collaborated with in different ways, including a recent multi-faith Thanksgiving service. For the winter holidays, the focus has been a drive for winter clothing donations.
“The school districts are telling us they’re finding the kids don’t have winter clothes and coats,” Martin said. “So all the congregations are working together to collect from their individual (members) and then we’ll combine it to give it out to kids in the school system.
“It’s really an important thing for us to remember, especially right now, when a lot of people have lost jobs,” she added. “We need to help and work together, all faiths.”
The efforts extend to other causes — including social injustices identified by group leaders — sometimes resulting in letters to legislative leaders.
“We work together for the good of everyone,” Martin said.
Also, because they share time on the December calendar, Christmas and Hanukkah also share a cultural exchange.
That’s the way it was for Martin growing up, and she sees it as more accepting today, especially within her own congregation.
“It’s become very prevalent that there is a lot of interfaith marriages,” she said, noting her own involvement in 18 Doors, an organization which helps interfaith couples deal with the questions and challenges that can arise. “As a matter of fact, I think most of our younger families are interfaith couples.”
Martin said the congregation is “very grateful” to welcome non-Jewish partners to the mix, especially the spouses who prefer to allow their children to grow up following Jewish teachings. “Sometimes they are more involved at the temple than the Jewish spouse,” she added with a laugh. Naturally, those interfaith couples bring the Christmas celebration with them. And that’s fine, Martin said.
“We don’t judge anyone about this,” she said. “I think it’s made Hanukkah a bigger deal (to those families), because it is sort of in competition with Christmas. We have eight nights of Hanukkah, we have eight presents for our kids — they might not be as big every night — and we make Hanukkah special.
“And we know they are going to go to their other families for Christmas, and Christmas is a lot of fun.”
In a year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, both the gift-giving and religious observance had to be adjusted this year with public safety in mind.
Rather than congregating at their temple along Moorland Boulevar

WISDOM Mission Statement

To Provide concrete modeling of women from different faith traditions working together in harmony for the common good.
To Empower women to take a more active role in furthering social justice and world peace.
To Dispel myths, stereotypes, prejudices and fear about faith traditions different from our own.
To Nurture the growth of empathy and spiritual energy that result from our projects and interfaith dialogue.