Islamic Society interfaith event fosters friendship around faith, food, Catholic sister’s poetry

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SHAFAQNA – The Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts brought together area religious leaders for an evening of food and faith on Monday. The event at the Islamic Center on Amostown Road also embraced friendship. Kamal Ali, the society vice president, was seated next to Rabbi Mark Shapiro of Sinai Temple in Springfield. The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, dined at table with Imam Wissam Abdul Baki. The Very Rev. James Munroe, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield, shared a story that highlighted how a child, during Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence, pushed passed fear to embrace an elderly priest whose faith she had been taught to hate. This theme of humanity underneath any differences among the world’s three major monotheistic religions was evident throughout the evening.

“It is a distinct honor for us to have your here today,” said Dr. Muhammad Z. Kareem, society president, in his welcome to the six leaders and the audience. “We benefit from your knowledge, but also your company.”

Audience members took to the podium, too. Richard LaPierre, of Springfield’s Foster Memorial Church, told the gathering this was the “best birthday experience I could have.” Sister of St. Joseph Jane Morrissey recited by heart George Herbert’s poem “Love,” that begins with “LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back/Guilty of dust and sin,” but ends with the reluctant guest seated at table.

The Lebanese-born imam told the Catholic sister that he journeyed with her in the poem. He also told those gathered that, if agreement is not always possible, those with a belief in the divine could “at least love what He loves.”

“I know we have differences, even between brother and brother in the same house, but that does not mean we have to destroy the house,” Baki said.

The sharing, spontaneous and otherwise, was part of “Interfaith Solidarity, Standing Together for Peace.” The event was designed, as society member Dr. Mohammed Saleem Bajwa explained, to promote “good will, understanding and solidarity among all faith groups.” It was presented with the support of the Interfaith Council of Western Massachusetts.

“With the realization that the Muslim community often comes under attack unjustly, due to terrible fighting and atrocities being committed by extremist groups in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, the interfaith leadership wanted to show their support and solidarity with the Islamic Society,” Bajwa said.

Rev. Kelly Gallagher, an associate conference minister for the Massachusetts Conference for the United Church of Christ, picked up on this theme of oppression in her reflection. She focused on prejudice embedded in an institution’s bylaws as well as promoted in a society defined by skin color. She spoke of having “privilege and power because of the color of my skin” and of “white America passing judgement against other religions.” She called for the “blinds to be raised on our oppression.”

“Pain suffered by so many has been perpetuated by people who look like me,” Gallagher said. She added that “we cannot let other people have the last word on what our faith stands for.”

“It is good that we gather and gain strength from one another,” Gallagher said. “We can say I support you and I know you support me. We are not alone.”

Munroe echoed a similar theme of solidarity in his reflection. In a reference to the terror attacks of 9/11, as well as to contemporary events in the Middle East and at home, he said “it takes awful things to bring us together.”

“Northern Syria, Baltimore, the streets of Springfield are calling us to stand together,” Munroe said before telling his story about how the priest and young girl achieved what “all the bombs and plastic bullets could not do.”

Similarly, the Rev. Paul Sinnott urged those present not to just stand together, a reference to the theme of the event, but to also walk together.

“We are on a journey together but let us not just stand there,” Sinnott said. “I invite you to be the hands of God in a world that is hurting.”

Sinnott is an associate to Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Archbishop Timothy Paul Baymon, president of the Council of Churches of Western Massachusetts, used humor in his story about a husband and wife to convey a moral about communication in a world of protests and conflicts.

“If someone is not answering, maybe you are not communicating the right message,” Baymon said. “The challenge in someone not answering us is to consider the message we are communicating.”

Baymon is also Metropolitan Archbishop of the International Communion of the Holy Christian Orthodox Church.

In delivering the first reflection as one of the invited speakers, Shapiro drew on a Jewish account of creation in which the Divine “took a deep breath.” This causes splinters of the Divine to become trapped on Earth, giving rise to the Jewish concept of tikkum olam. This, Shapiro said, refers to the need to “liberate the Divine sparks buried in our midst” through acts that repair or heal.

“We need to be carpenters and physicians,” the rabbi said, “to make the world more peaceful.”

Rozanski, who chairs the committee on ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was billed as the keynote speaker for the event.

Second Vatican documents Nostra Aetate and Unitatis Redintergratio sought to improved the Catholic Church’s relations with other faiths, and Rozanski made reference to this and the outreach of Popes John Paul XXIII to Muslims and John Paul II to Jews. Pope Francis has spoken out against the brutality of the Islamic State, which has beheaded American citizens in the Middle East, as well as murdered Christians, Shia Muslims and others, and the Vatican has called for united action against these extremists.

Rozanski was auxiliary bishop in Baltimore under Archbishop William Lori, until Francis appointed him Springfield bishop in June. Six Baltimore police officers are facing criminal charges in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Lori said in a recent interview with America magazine that “bishops have to equip themselves to participate” in conversation about poverty, violence, racial intolerance and injustice, and Rozanski said before the start of the evening he was in agreement with this need.

“In Baltimore, the churches come together for the common good and that is what brings us together here,” Rozanski said.

He told the audience that Baltimore has an active “ecumenical and interfaith community” that was active during the recent protests for justice.

“There were more people at prayer,” Rozanski said, “than on the streets.”

Parts of the Quran were woven into the evening, including the Surah al-Fatiha that is recited in daily prayers and was shared in Arabic by Abdul Sattar Chaudhry, a society board member. Dr. Fuad Mudawwar said a supplication before the meal. Translations were given.

Guests were welcomed also welcomed by Martin Pion, council president and a professor in the religious studies department at Elms College in Chicopee.

The evening ended with the call for Maghrib, the prayer at sunset for Muslims.

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