Faith leaders from the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions all gathered at Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Sunday, to express solidarity with the less fortunate, and state that the recent backlash against Syrian refugees represents a shirking of responsibility to those in need.
The focus of the two-hour service, attended by roughly 150 people, was the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Christian Gospel. In the story, a man is lying wounded by the side of a particularly dangerous road. Numerous travelers see the man and cross to the other side of the road, too uncomfortable or fearful to help him. Only one person, the Samaritan, is moved by the stranger’s plight and comes to his aid. It’s this Samaritan, according to the parable, who understands the true definition of one’s “neighbor.”
The story was recounted from the church’s pulpit by local Rabbi Ted Falcon. “It’s not often that a Rabbi is asked to comment on a story from the Christian Bible,” he joked, before connecting the story to teachings from other religions.
“This parable is about every society, and it’s about us,” said Falcon. “We must cease dismissing those who need help, just by saying they’re not our neighbor. They are.”
This was Seattle’s 29th Annual Inter-spiritual Celebration of Gratitude at Thanksgiving, and longtime organizer John Hale (a Catholic) said it spoke to a time of increased fear and prejudice in the United States and abroad. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States by Islamic extremists, as well as the Paris attacks this past January, a spectrum of faith and political leaders spoke out against a fear of Muslims, not to mention outright prejudice, violence, and attacks on mosques.
After the November 13 attacks on Paris, intolerance and fear against Muslims is again on the rise, but such calls for unity and understanding have become less common. Instead, the majority of Americans are now against allowing any refugees fleeing violence in Syria into the country, for fear that some may be violent extremists. Locally, State Rep. Jay Rodne, a Republican from Snoqualmie, has called Islam “barbarian medievalism.” There's been little push-back on Rodne's comments from state Republicans.
From the pulpit Sunday, speaker after speaker spoke out directly against this mindset, stating that the refugees in need – who includes many orphans and the elderly – are in fact our neighbors.
“Right now, there are issues and people which want to polarize our community, and pull us apart as people,” said Hale. He called the event an attempt to “build momentum for right action.”
The event's most moving moment was a speech by Imam Baazi from the Islamic Center of Federal Way. Baazi related current events to a story from the Quran, in which everyone was turning against the Muslims and telling them that “your God has forsaken you, and does not love you.” During his remarks, Baazi broke into tears, causing many others in the audience to do the same. He ended by calling on people to “not repel the orphans, but shelter them, hug them, give them a kind word.”
To help those in need locally, the event also included the collection and blessing of hundreds of hand knit scarves and hats, which would later be given to the homeless. This was part of a yearly program, Warm for Winter, organized by local Muslim woman Janice Tuft. Almost $2000 for homeless services was also raised from the over 100 people in attendance.
Following the event, we asked participants in the interfaith service for their thoughts on recent events. All comments are abridged for length and clarity.
Imam Jamal Rahman, Interfaith Community Sanctuary
Islamic mystics say, when dealing with someone who’s an antagonist, do what is right. Protect yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be abused. But there’s a verse in the Quran that says God has deliberately created diversity so you might come to know the other on a human level. So that is our real work.
The fear is understandable. But how can we, as activists, as good people, create the environment where people with different levels of fear and understanding connect on a human level? For example, when 9/11 happened, I knew of some Christian evangelicals who, if you mentioned Islam, would break out into an allergic hive. So I got to get to know them on a human level. It took a long time, because they thought I had a secret agenda. It takes humility, patience, sincerity, and persistence. And I, as a progressive Muslim, had to overcome the stereotyping I had of evangelical Christians. I lumped them all together. But we got to know each other.
Sure, we can fear the Muslims. Some can be terrorists, but the majority of these refugees are people who are suffering, and we are casting aspersions and creating suspicions based on the actions of a few people. These are not the values of Jesus, peace be upon him.
Rev. Staci Imes, Woodland Park Presbyterian Church
I think the story of the Good Samaritan is a great one to think about right now, because it’s about mercy and common humanity. A lot of what’s happening in the backlash to Syrian refugees really, whether we want to acknowledge it, prays on racism and Islamophobia. We’re making a lot of assumptions about what someone being Muslim means.
I hope people begin to go beyond the surface. That’s the invitation that both our secular and our sacred holidays offer us every year. Yes, we can say, ‘Peace and goodwill to all.’ We can say it’s time to ‘give thanks.’ But we can also stop and think more deeply about what that means. In what ways do I look away from helping someone when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable? In what ways am I already sharing, and in what ways can I do a bit more?
Janice Tufte, organizer of Warm for Winter
If you’re a Muslim who’s old enough to remember the period after 9/11, you remember the fear, and how you’re always asked to justify yourself and explain yourself and be apologetic for being Muslim. Even if you’re outspoken that this is wrong, you don’t have a voice. Those that are older are kind of tired of this. I have fear too. To those that are scared of Muslims, I’d say we know where you’re coming from. We’re fearful in our community too. These refugees, they’re the ones who are running from the violent extremists.
Now we get targeted. Just this week, four women I know have had people say something bad to them because they’re wearing a headscarf. One woman, she works at a well-known hotel in Pioneer Square. Some customers came in, and she was telling them this is a nice neighborhood, good restaurants, but watch yourself, because there’s quite a few transients in the area, and they may be assertive panhandlers.
The woman looks at her and says, “Transients? Is that what they call Syrians today?” She was so taken aback. She was wearing a headscarf. So she said, “I don’t know what to say about that. Are you saying that because I’m a Muslim?” The woman responds, “You are not a patriot, and you need to wake up to what you’re doing to your country.” I mean, what are you supposed to do in response to all this?
Rev. Margaret Spearmon, First African Methodist Episcopal Church
The story of the Good Samaritan is all about the question: “Who is your neighbor?” How do you extend love not just to those we’re familiar with, but those we don’t know? That’s the essence of this. Your neighbor could be anyone. There are no barriers. We move out of the spaces that are comfortable for us and we reach out.
Because you can be paralyzed by fear. It’s what you see on TV. You can end up becoming afraid of other people and staying in the house if you let fear tell you how to live. And for me, I don’t want to be contained. I want to embrace freedom.
John Hale, longtime event organizer
These issues aren't easy, but they need to be discussed and addressed. With regard to this Syrian immigrant issue, fear makes ugliness keep cropping up in people’s demeanors and intentions. What it does is mask the deeper questions. When you look at those who are immigrants fleeing oppression, they haven’t been waiting for an opening to get into the U.S. or Germany or wherever. They’re trying to get safe. My church believes in social justice.
For those that are afraid of them, I say bring your issues forward, go to a gathering where you’ll be honored, respond to an invitation to tell your truth. But also hear the truth of others on a particular issue. It’s my experience that when we do that, we move from issues to relationships, and relationships create trust.
Imam Baazi, Islamic Center of Federal Way
It can seem like the whole world is aflame, in pitch black darkness. What has happened to humanity itself? How have we gone to such violence, where innocent people are being targeted? It was very painful to see that (Paris attack), because no religion – Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity – promotes such a thing.
The saddest part is that people are using the name of the religion to promote this violence. Our political leaders unfortunately aren’t standing up and addressing these issues. The media is taking one side.
For those afraid of Syrian refugees, I would ask, with all love and kindness, how can we turn away an orphan kid who just lost his mother and his father, seen such atrocity, and he is begging and raising his hand? I would ask, if you were in his shoes, would you want someone to turn you away, to look down on you?
May God bless our Governor (Jay Inslee) and strengthen him for his support of Syrian refugees. This was very inspiring not just for us, but for people in Syria as well. It told them people who are not related to them still care for them, and are opening their arms and saying "We welcome you." This is what brings back peace. Not shunning away people who are deprived or homeless. If you uplift people and give them a hand, the same person who may have become evil one day will instead become a great leader.