In spite of the dark evening, the rain-slicked streets and temperatures in the low 40s, one car after another turned into the parking lot of Trinity Lutheran Church Monday night until the lot was overflowing.
People from all walks of life, some arriving alone but most arriving in couples or groups, made their way across the parking lot toward the door of the church. Awaiting them were hearty welcomes and a brightly lit church lobby where hugs, refreshments and an open dialogue about building strong communities of understanding in difficult times was about to take place.
The event was a conference of sorts: “Love in a Time of Fear: Muslims and Christians as Good Neighbors.” Organized by two unlikely friends, considering the current political climate, the stated goal of the community gathering was that “We are people of faith respecting our differences and celebrating our commonalities and our common humanity.”
According to organizers Terry Kyllo and Jafar Siddiqui, in this time of anxiety and tension, communities should be encouraged to seek out neighborly relationships with Muslims; call for our neighbors, corporations and governmental agencies to respect the human and civil rights of all people – including Muslims; and resist the urge to stereotype and scapegoat minorities, including Muslims.
Siddiqui relayed that his friend Kyllo stopped by for tea and spoke of the anxiety and tension he believed was manifest across the United States in regard to the “fear, hate, fear” cycle that was developing “about Muslims.” The meeting took place four days prior to the San Bernadino, Calif. terrorist attack.
So Kyllo, a Lutheran pastor who is serving The Catacomb Churches and St. Philip’s Episcopal, and Siddiqui, who is a human rights and civil rights activist for the Muslim community, decided to launch a public forum and bring together representatives of the Christian and Muslim communities for a public dialogue. Their intention was to form a coalition that “went beyond expressions of talk and regret” to one of “action and involvement.”
Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood became the setting for the forum as imans and bishops stood with community activists and organizers against hate crimes and discrimination. The event drew residents from South Snohomish County and beyond, who responded enthusiastically to an opportunity to forge new friendships and show support for one another.
Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of 300 people, Pastor Paul Sundburg of Trinity Lutheran Church welcomed the attendees, admitting his concern over “fear becoming a stock and trade in our world.” Asking rhetorically why Trinity would want to become involved with an attempt to bring people of different faiths, principles and ideologies together, he explained the motivation was “to respond with faith and grace – in powerful defiance – to overcome those who would use fear to divide us.”
Sundburg recounted the days immediately following 9/11, when members of the Trinity congregation visited Lynnwood’s mosque, Dar-Alarqam, to scrub the graffiti off the outside, the result of some of the community who directly blamed all in the Islamic faith for the 9/11 attack. It was after the Islamic community, in turn, presented to the church a bouquet of roses “as big as” the pastor himself, that a friendship between the two congregations began.
Twelve community leaders took the podium at “Love in a Time of Fear,” including Siddiqui, who quoted the Quran in his opening remarks. His choice was Chapter 49, verse 13, “O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most godfearing of you. God is All-knowing, All-aware.” [Translation from The Koran Interpreted by scholar Arthur John Arberry.)
He went on to remind those in attendance that similar gatherings were taking place “across the nation” with the “resolve to reach out to each other to recognize the humanity of each person we encounter” in our daily lives.
As Pastor Terry Kyllo took the podium, he remarked that “central to being a human being is to work actively for the well-being of your neighbor.” He led his fellow panelists in a call to action in solving practical matters affecting the Muslim communities.
Also addressing the gathering was Bishop Kirby Unti of the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church; Sheikh Ismail Ahmad, a religious adviser and the educational director of the Islamic Center of Seattle; Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of CAIR-Washington State, the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Lesley Hazleton, a writer and psychologist and author of a number of titles including “Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto,” which will be published in April; Benjamin Shabazz, imam to the community of W.D. Muhammed; and John Forseth recent program director of Refugee Resettlement and Placement, based in Tacoma.
Arsalan Bukhari, who described himself as “a local kid” who moved to the Northwest in 1990 and graduated from Seattle’s Ingraham High School. Bukhari holds a degree from Seattle University in business finance. He called on the public to write letters to their local newspapers describing their friendships with members of the Islamic community.
He reminded the gathering that the community of Islam includes teachers, the military, first responders and those engaged in compassionate care, and cited the names of many Muslims who have given their lives for American ideals in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Bukhari also made reference to recent successful court challenges to the “American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) anti-Islamic endorsements including that of automatically placing travelers with Islamic names on the FSC no-fly list” and the “USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) practice of lag processing of immigration applications of those with Islamic names.” He provided his email for those who wish to contact him: [email protected].
In her comments to those in attendance, Lesley Hazelton warned against bigotry and drew parallels between today’s Islamophobia and the anti-Semitism before and following World War II. She took a stand against the notion that the Muslim community “be registered with the government” or in drafting refugee rejection bills.
In her closing remarks, Hazelton called on individuals to “be openly partisan” against the movement to register Muslims and recited the verses by Holocaust survivor Martin Niemoller, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist; Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Before asking participants and the attendees to enjoy desserts provided by the Muslim community, Kyllo invited those gathered to leave their contact information, as the organizers’ intention is to hold similar action-oriented gatherings, workshops and discussions on the topic of Muslims and Christians living together as good neighbors.
Pastor Paul Sundberg invited comments and inquiries on how to contact panel members to his email address: [email protected].
— Story and photo by Emily Hill