Richmonders of all faiths and backgrounds are uniting against the increasing Islamophobia, xenophobia, and divisive rhetoric. “Standing Together” is an initiative to bring diverse groups together to speak out and stand with the Muslim community and others who are marginalized. On January 10 more than 600 people responded to this call and filled the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Ahabah, one the oldest Synagogues in Richmond, VA. Under the leadership of Jonathan Zur and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Hope in the Cities joined a coalition of community organizations and more than 50 faith leaders from across the region in launching the call.
Following a press conference at the Islamic Center of Virginia in mid-December and a full page advertisement in the Richmond Times-Dispatch signed by more than 100 community and faith leaders on December 27, Congregation Beth Ahabah asked to host the January 10 public event. Welcoming the crowd, Rabbi Martin P. Beifield, Jr. said, “This is a journey we are on, a process. We are called to travel together and strengthen our community.” In response, Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center spoke of the “universal invitation to come together to serve God and to serve humanity.” He urged the audience to “find common ways to stand up for justice, equality and human rights.”
The Rev. Dr. John W. Kinney of Virginia Union University spoke of the need to go to the root of what divides. “Gender, race and religion become a conceptual framework for constant patterns of separation.”
A panel representing different faiths picked up the conversation. Reflecting on the discrimination they or their community have experienced, Anita Elcock, who chairs the board of trustees for Tawheed Prep School, an Islamic school in Richmond’s North Side, recounted a story from a Muslim woman who was followed by someone in a local grocery store. When she finally turned around to confront the person, they asked, “Are you ISIS?” She responded, “Are you the KKK?” This story was met with much laughter of recognition.
“What religion is God?” asked Dr. Baljit S. Sidhu of the Sikh community. He encouraged people to look at the inside of people rather than the outward symbols such as a turban or head scarf. Amy Russell of the Unitarian Universalist Community church urged people to look for the divine spark in each individual.
Rabbi Jesse Gallop remarked that it is easy to remember when we were victims, “But when were we the perpetrators?” Anita Elcock talked about the need to address prejudice in our own lives, in our families and the groups we associate with. Prejudice starts in the home and spreads from there. “It is important to have purity in our own hearts and homes.”
The audience broke into small dialogue groups to discuss what “standing together” means to them. Participants seemed eager to talk and to meet one another across the social divides.
Imad Damaj of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs spoke together with Rev. Charles Swardley of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. They wrapped up the conversation by describing the intentional dialogue they have been involved in over seven years. It takes time to nurture relationships, to listen deeply to one another. We need to be willing to approach the hard questions and together resist the rumor mills. Charles Swardly highlighted the support given to the Muslim community when they wanted to build a mosque in one of the counties. A large crowd showed up at the meeting of the board of Supervisors, several clergy spoke and the most compelling argument for the mosque was made by Rabbi Romer. They did not succeed that night but five years later with full community support the board voted unanimously for the mosque.
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine closed the evening. He had arrived home the night before from a congressional trip to Vienna, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Istanbul. They had gone to be on the ground and learn firsthand about the crisis the Middle East but were constantly confronted by the question, “What is happening in America?” There was much concern about the political rhetoric and fear mongering. Senator Kaine was happy to be able to describe this occasion that he would be attending on his return. It made him realize that the world expects America to make diversity work. “They look to us to give an example.” Discrimination often springs from a need to blame somebody for suffering we are experiencing. Suffering tests us. He asked, “Are we going to stay true to our principles even under stress?”
The audience left with a commitment to continue building bridges and to find ways to take action together.