By Amanda Quraishi
I don’t have the habit of quoting Elvis Presley (especially when writing about issues of faith) but I find this song playing in my mind after reading about interfaith activism. Unfortunately it seems that interfaith activism is often defined as a select group of people sitting around a table having lofty and esoteric conversations about tolerance and understanding.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some really excellent people engaged in this kind of ongoing dialogue. At the end of the day, though, it is important to ask what is really being accomplished with all this “activism.” Blog posts are written, news coverage is had, and those who were involved go home feeling optimistic about the future and good about themselves.
But what about the gas station owners, the corporate accountants, and the software engineers who aren’t necessarily part of the world of interfaith dialogue? What about people who still feel uncomfortable approaching the parents of their child’s classmates, not knowing if a simple invitation to a party will offend them? What about all those folks who don’t have special access to the elite world of highly esteemed academics, clergy, and non-profit organizers?
It’s a grave mistake to leave interfaith dialogue to those who hold such elevated positions. Real, meaningful change in any society is not the result of vicarious experiences. Changes in public opinion are the direct result of everyday people coming into contact with people and ideas they may not otherwise have the opportunity to know. We can evolve only by ensuring the greatest number of people in our society have the opportunity to experience new things for themselves.
Since 9/11 I have been drafted as a participant into local interfaith activism. Over these past eleven years I’ve engaged in all kinds of events that are meant to build bridges among those of different faiths. In my experience, the most effective events are those that have almost nothing to do with talking about religion. They are about putting people into situations where they must work with people from other religions.
There are some organizations and programs around the U.S. where this kind of work is happening. Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core is a perfect example of the kind of service-based activism that creates real change—externally and internally—among people of different faith traditions. But it’s not enough. We need more organizations (formal and informal) for people from all age groups, socio-economic statuses, and education levels to work together side-by-side.
Simply using existing service-based organizations to facilitate this kind of activism also works beautifully. For example, my family and I are regular participants in an annual Muslim-Jewish interfaith project with Hands on Housing, a program of iACT. Each year a group of volunteers from both communities joins forces to renovate a home for an elderly person with low-income status. These workdays are full of interfaith activism, and yet rarely is religion formally discussed. Rather, Jews and Muslims are working side by side in service with one another, observing one another growing sweaty, dirty and tired in an active demonstration of what our respective faiths teach us about charity.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a Christian-based non-profit, I have also been able to coordinate efforts with the Muslim community so that we can regularly participate in this incredible mission to address the needs of our local homeless population. We take catering trucks stocked with food out to the local homeless to distribute food, toiletries and love to the people who need it most.
In both of these cases, the reward of the activism is two-fold. First, our communities see the direct result of their good work, often expressed by the very people they are serving. Whether it’s an 80-year-old woman who might otherwise break a hip by falling down her dilapidated stairs, or a homeless man who is grateful for a sandwich and a pair of socks—the direct contact with the people we serve is a reward in and of itself. Every single time we repair a house with Hands on Housing or deliver food to the homeless with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, our volunteers come away with a kind of soul-satisfaction that can only be the result of fulfilling our purpose in serving others and working with compassion.
The other benefit, of course, is that we come away with relationships. Real, solid relationships with other volunteers that are based on shared values and experiences that are deeply spiritual. Friendships between faith traditions form like this—not by discussing doctrinal differences or presenting PowerPoint slides on how we can all communicate better—but by working hard, getting down to the nitty-gritty and getting messy together.
Our bonds become stronger each time we work together, so that when tragedy strikes or bad news hits, we don’t have to live in fear of our neighbors from different faith traditions. In fact, we can find reassurance, solace and camaraderie with them in the face of those trials.
Please consider this a call to action…and I do mean action.
This is a call for us to create more opportunities for our faith communities to work together in service-based projects; and for those highly esteemed religious and academic leaders to facilitate this kind of wide scale interaction rather than just keeping the dialogue to themselves.
What we need in our interfaith activism is a little less conversation… a little more action. Please.
Amanda Quraishi is a Muslim-American writer, blogger, interfaith activist and tech professional living in Austin, Texas. In 2003 she founded Central Texas Muslimaat to address the unique needs of central Texas Muslim women. Amanda represented Austin’s Muslim community as the youngest board member in iACT/AAIM’s history. She currently works for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, serves on the Board of Directors for Texas Impact, and as a fellow at the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute.