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When 'them' becomes 'us': Standing with the Muslim community of Grand Rapids

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The Standing Together Partnership initiative created four new congregational partnerships. In these partnerships, each mosque was paired up with at least two Christian churches and a Jewish Synagogue.
Abrahamic Dinner

Abrahamic Dinner /Courtesy of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute

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It all begins with listening.

This past winter, amidst a season fraught with 569 Islamophobic attacks in the United States and a surge in Islamophobic rhetoric, the Peace and Justice Task Force of the Interfaith Service Council decided it was necessary to listen to the Muslim community in Grand Rapids, to hear of their experiences in West Michigan, and to learn how the wider faith community could stand together with them. In early January, this task force embarked on a listening tour that visited four of the mosques and Islamic centers in Grand Rapids.

The questions were simple: “What has life been like for you in this community?” and “How might we, the interfaith community, stand together with you?”

“When people hear the news, they internalize it. We want people to see that the Muslim community is safe,” stated one of Imams. “We need to work harder and put in more time to make a dream and an idea of community real. There is a need for combatting stereotypes and assumptions.”

Doug Kindschi, Program Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, and participant in the listening tour noted, “When the threats against Muslim increased and came from the highest levels, our neighbors and friends were understandably worried.”

Through these conversations, the listening tour found that only relationships built on mutual support and understanding could begin to challenge and change the narrative of hate, anxiety, and fear that is rampant in our cultural rhetoric. As one member of the planning committee noted, “To combat fear we must create 1-on-1 relationships in which ‘them’ becomes ‘us’.”

But how do you take on such a daunting task? How does “them” become “us”?

For the Imams of the four area mosques, the answer was simple. Such a daunting task can only be solved over dinner!

One of the Imams remarked, “Breaking bread is comfortable – we can gather to eat and build relationships. There is an excitement now for relationships and learning.”

As so it was! The four area Imams, in partnership with the Kaufman Interfaith Institute hosted over 200 people from different congregations at Masjid At-Tawheed for an incredible evening of sharing food and building new friendships! This “Standing Together” event provided a beautiful opportunity for people across different faith traditions to meet and hear from their Muslim neighbors. Along with a delicious Mediterranean meal, people from across West Michigan shared tears and laughter as they met one another in a new way and departed as friends.

As a result of this dinner, a Standing Together Partnership initiative created four new congregational partnerships. In these partnerships, each mosque was paired up with at least two Christian churches and, in one case, a Jewish Synagogue.

“Our congregational partnerships are one way to show our support and forge new relationships among the various religious communities,” Kindschi noted, “Already many exciting connections have been made and we are expanding the acceptance of all members of our increasingly diverse community.”   

In the months following the dinner, these partnerships have held hang-outs and get togethers to continue that relational movement of “’them’ becoming ‘us.’”

An ice-cream, tea, and get-to-know-you social was held at Westminster Presbyterian Church for the partnership with Masjid Ah-Tawheed, Temple Emanuel, and Trinity Lutheran Church. A pizza party and prayer observation was held at The Burton Islamic Center for the partnership with Boston Square Christian Reformed Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. An interfaith soccer game was slated to be played in conjunction with ICC Behar and Church of the Servant. The Annual Abrahamic Dinner was another wonderful gathering of around 200 people, and featured speakers from several of the partnerships. Lastly, Interfaith and Interwoven, a knitting event for people of all worldviews, is hosted by Central Reformed Church every first and third Wednesday of the summer months!

In addition to spending time in each other’s prayer and worship services, these events have provided rich opportunities for people to hear about one another’s experiences, to share in each other’s hope, and see the transformative process of strangers becoming friends.

As we look to August, we are excited for an interfaith potluck to be hosted by Two Churches in partnership with the Bosnian Cultural Center and Mosque and Plymouth United Church of Christ. Rev. Mike Wernick, Pastor and Rector of Two Churches, stated, “These partnerships create a stronger community, because when we are connected through prayer, our hearts are connected too.”

These four new families of congregations are continuing to blossom in to beautiful relationships of learning, admiration, support, and solidarity. It is with excitement and imagination that they stand together in hope as they welcome others into the work of building a better community. But, it all begins with listening.

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