It was a blessedly sunny Saturday afternoon in early December, and there in Falls Church, Virginia, more than a hundred of us–Muslims and Catholics and Protestants and Jews and UUs–had converged on the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center to help pack the thousands of blankets and coats the mosque’s members had been collecting for months so they could be shipped out to refugees in Syria and Iraq. To the sound of cheering, we filled two large rental trucks and sent them off.
The clergy and leadership at Dar al Hijrah, as at so many mosques, are old hands at this kind of charitable work. Indeed, the mosque runs one of northern Virginia’s busiest soup kitchens and its women run regular workshops for immigrant women, covering everything from soft skills training to ESL. In fact, the mosque did not really need us non-Muslims to help finish up its refugee donations that Saturday. We were really there for a different reason.
In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks last year, mosques across the U.S. have been experiencing a serious rise in incidents of vandalism, personal threats, and violence. A mosque in nearby Manassas received death threats just days before our interfaith event, and Dar al Hijrah had been vandalized as well. The increasing calls from politicians to ban all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.—and even to ban all Muslims—has only made things worse.
In response, Islamic leaders in northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs decided to call on the aid of non-Muslim clergy to help de-escalate the tensions and stand up in a symbolic show of support. They knew they would get a swift response if they made this call through the interfaith community organizing coalitions they belonged to, including PATH (People Acting Together in Howard) in Howard County and VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) in northern Virginia. For more than five years, our congregations had already been working together to act on local problems, from affordable housing to health clinic access and more. Within weeks, dozens of clergy hammered out plans for interfaith events that would, at least, send a message of unity and perhaps open up new lines of communication.
Standing up for the basic well being of other congregations, regardless of their religious or political leanings, is surely mandated by our 1st, 2nd, and 6th UU Principles. Sometimes we forget that the people who attend mosques in our area are also fellow participants in our democracy, whether or not they have become U.S. citizens. Community organizing enables us to put these principles into action in a practical way. As congregations, we cannot easily come to the aid of people—even nearby—whom we do not know, but by engaging in serious organizing we form bonds of relationship. For example, Dar al Hijrah had ceased to be a strange mystery to me and others at UUCA the first evening we sat down to dinner there, at the mosque’s invitation, during the fast-breaking of Ramadan. Joining our Muslim neighbors for fast-breaking has become a tradition for many VOICE member institutions.
In response to the requests for help, PATH organized an evening of community dialogue at the Maryum Islamic Center in Ellicott City. More than 200 people showed up. A similar event was held at the Dar al Noor Mosque in Manassas, organized by VOICE, which also organized the Saturday event at Dar al Hijrah. That Saturday, before we rolled up our sleeves to pack boxes, we had first congregated on the lawn of a Presbyterian church down the highway. Just before we were sent off on our short, symbolic “unity march” to the mosque, we listened to these words from Rev. Rebecca Messman of Trinity Presbyterian Church (in Herndon, VA):
Jesus taught, ‘Love your Neighbor as yourself.’ It is the narrative of our country. … There is nothing in parentheses on the Statue of Liberty that says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor–except those fleeing persecution.’
There was nothing original in the interfaith actions we undertook that weekend in Falls Church and elsewhere in the region. But newness was not the point. What was valuable, and what made these efforts so meaningful, was that by already being in a collegial relationship with one other, clergy and members of vastly different faiths were able to quickly come together. They—all of us–were able to show one another that we had their backs.
When I was asked to write this article, I was encouraged to say something about my volunteer history as a UU. Well, in fact my history is a bit “all over the map.” When I first joined UUCA, I helped lead our congregation’s LGBT equality group, figuring that as an openly gay man I might have some extra energy to contribute to that work. I later helped lead our social action council, and more recently I’ve worked as an OWL facilitator. All of this energizes me. I’ve seen how much more can be accomplished to rebuild the broken world we’ve all inherited by banding together with others, and that alone is enough to justify the small personal investment.
One of my lasting memories of that cheerful afternoon in Falls Church is of a fair-haired teenager clumsily labeling the contents of boxes in Arabic lettering. I asked him if he knew Arabic, and he said, “No. But we figured it would be good to do this, so I asked these kids from the mosque to teach me some words.” In a nutshell, I think, that boy’s response speaks volumes, and it gives me hope.