A Pakistani in an American Church in Trump’s era

America has faced a rash of hate crimes and acts of intimidation since the election of Donald Trump on November 8

Patrick Burnett November 22, 2016
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, US. PHOTO: REUTERS

America has faced a rash of hate crimes and acts of intimidation since the election of Donald Trump on November 8. A number of Muslims, Jews, Latino-Americans and other minorities have found themselves to be the targets of such vile acts in recent days. Yet, a mere five days after Trump’s election, a Virginia Episcopal church welcomed Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, to speak from the pulpit for an hour-and-a-half on the importance of building interfaith bridges.

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Ahmed’s talk in Fredericksburg, Va, a small city located an hour’s drive south of Washington, DC, was in direct response to a local conflict that broke out in November 2015. The 30-year-old Islamic Center of Fredericksburg had sought to build a new mosque to address the needs of a growing congregation. But at a zoning board meeting convened to discuss the mosque’s construction plans in the days following the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Muslim community was met with a chorus of shouts and taunts from their neighbours. One man even yelled, “Nobody, nobody, nobody wants your evil cult in this county.” The Islamic Centre rescinded its proposal in August.

In response to this conflict, Ahmed received a letter from The Rev Gay Rahn of St George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg this past June, requesting that he visit and speak to the community. Rahn, a top local interfaith leader, has played a significant role in supporting the Islamic Center and helping heal the community’s wounds. As part of her work, she was keen to invite Ahmed to join her efforts, writing: “Because of this work, we would like to ask if you would consider coming to Fredericksburg and talk with us, to share your wisdom, to help us with ways to deepen this work and to challenge us to dream big, to imagine our potential and to encourage us to not give up or give in.”

Ahmed and I arrived in Fredericksburg unsure as to how the programme would be received and whether someone may even try to disrupt the lecture. Our nerves were calmed immediately by the finest of Southern hospitality. The first stop of the day was to the cozy, elegant home of The Rev Deacon Ed Jones and his wife, Peggy Jones, for a private luncheon in Ahmed’s honour. Rev Jones, the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, worked closely with Rahn to coordinate Ahmed’s lecture. A small but eager gathering of community dignitaries welcomed us into the home and joined us for a three-course vegetarian luncheon, which Peggy went out of her way to prepare with respect to Ahmed’s dietary needs.

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The St George’s community was no less welcoming of Ahmed. St George’s Episcopal Church, located right in the heart of historic Fredericksburg, has long been at the crossroads of American history. The Church was George Washington’s boyhood house of worship. It served as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Today, it is a gathering place for America’s faith communities as they grapple with how to best interact and engage with one another in this new environment. The church even prominently featured a sign out front that unequivocally states, “Church is open to all with love.”

Community members both Christian and Muslim filled the pews eager to hear Ahmed’s words and guidance on how to move forward in this new chapter of history. Imams and Christian leaders joined their congregations to hear Ahmed’s words of wisdom. Both before and after his talk, Ahmed was mobbed by community members of all faiths, with young children even jumping up and down wishing to say hello to him.

Following a warm introduction by Rahn, who read aloud Ahmed’s poem, “What is it that I seek?”, and Rev Jones, who referred to Matthew 5:9 — “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” — in his remarks, Ahmed straightaway addressed the topic on every American’s mind these days: the election of Donald Trump as president. As America is a superpower, how will this election impact foreign affairs? What does this election mean for minority groups, who feel unsure, apprehensive, fearful and angry in the election’s aftermath? How do we answer to those with stories like that of a young Pakistani Christian woman in DC who was harassed while walking down the street to shouts of, “Go home you [expletive] Arab”?

Though America is heading into uncharted waters, Ahmed reminded the audience of one certainty: Now is a time for leadership of wisdom, compassion and courage in the frame of the Founding Fathers. Now is a time when we need visionary leaders to stand up for pluralist identity and confront the division, fear and uncertainty pervasive in America today.

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Ahmed outlined a three-step method for building interfaith bridges. Step one is to reach out in a heartfelt manner and initiate dialogue. Make it very clear you are not coming to impose your religion on the other person, but rather that you are just coming to talk. Step two is to begin to understand other faiths and other peoples. As Ahmed said, understanding takes effort. It requires taking the time to read about the other faith and visit each other’s houses of worship. But it opens your eyes to the many commonalities you did not realize you had with the other. Step three is to foster interfaith friendships: “If you’re successful in dialogue, you’ll go to understanding, and if you’re lucky you may end up by creating genuine friendships.” As Ahmed reminded the room, one simply does not blow up one’s friends.

Not one, but two standing ovations were given in Ahmed’s honour. In this divided community and divided country, to hear a Muslim leader give hope for all Americans irrespective of faith reminded people of the greatness of America and the American pluralist spirit. Ahmed’s words also reminded the audience that the nation is no less great today just because of the dynamics of this past election season. The positive energy was palpable.

Today, many Americans feel great uncertainty about what is to come, not only under the Trump administration, but at the hands of those who feel emboldened to express hateful sentiments. Yet, for me as a young American, Ahmed’s message and the perseverance of the Fredericksburg community was a reminder of the exuberant, hopeful American spirit that continues to light a candle in the darkness. Just think: Thanks to hard work and the American spirit, during Ahmed’s lecture, Muslim and Christian audience members were sitting in the church side by side in friendship a mere one year after the infamous zoning board meeting. If such bonds can emerge anew in Fredericksburg, what is stopping us from bridging divides in our own communities and around the nation and world?

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2016.

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reader | 6 years ago | Reply Can a similar congregation happen here in Pakistan with people of different faiths Muslims and Christians and addressed by leaders of both faiths? good of Tribune to share this story, so readers can at least read the good things that are happening around world, which gives hope, that this can also happen here in this country.
Farru | 6 years ago | Reply Its hard, but its still possible. Thanks for sharing your thoughts
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