By Lynne Marie Meyer
#BlackLivesMatter #MuslimLivesMatter #Selma #Montgomery #Karachi #WeAreAllOne #solidarityacrossmovements #GMABlog
“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after returning home from Selma.
March 21 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of a pivotal event in the United States. On that day, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., joined by thousands of others, began an historic march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capitol.
One of the most important moments in the Civil Rights Movement, the march from Selma to Montgomery is also one of the great historic examples of interfaith solidarity. Clergy representing many faiths took part in this landmark event in support of African-American voting rights. Of these clergy, perhaps the most famous is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, widely considered to be one of the most important American religious figures of the 20th century.
According to his daughter Susannah, for Rabbi Heschel “the march was not simply a political demonstration, but a religious occasion.” It reminded him, she said, “of the message of the prophets, whose primary concern was social injustice, and of his Hasidic forebears, for whom compassion for the suffering of other people defined a religious person.”
I was reminded of this story some weeks ago, as my students prepared for Black History Month. Two groups that had previously never co-sponsored an event decided to do a lunchtime program looking at parallels between Ferguson and Gaza. It was an interesting idea, and students were eager to learn from one another. The morning of the event, I was already deep in thought, anticipating the program to come and reflecting on Rabbi Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., when suddenly I heard the news. Three bright, talented, and philanthropic young Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina had been murdered in an apparent hate crime.
As I sat at my desk, scrolling through Twitter and other media sources, learning more about what had happened and feeling increasingly heartsick at the senseless loss, I came across a post by Reverend Jennifer Bailey, founder and executive director of the Faith Matters Network. Hers was a simple but powerful message.
Rev. Bailey has been at the forefront of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and her words of support and solidarity with the Muslim community gave me – a white woman who is neither Christian nor Muslim – my first real sense of hope on that tragic day.
Solidarity across movements. There, laid out before me on my computer screen in a mere handful of characters, was the spirit of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel.
I reflected on Reverend Bailey’s words the remainder of the day, and for many days afterwards. The Chapel Hill shootings deeply affected my campus, as it did many throughout the nation. We have an extremely diverse student body (approximately 47% of our students are from outside the United States), and many of my students are Muslim. By the end of the week, my students and I had made plans for a vigil, which we hosted a few days later, on the one week anniversary of the murders.
From the outset, my students made it clear that they wanted this vigil to be something that would not only offer healing and comfort, but bring the campus community together. This was to be an interfaith event, one that celebrated the lives of Deah, Yusor, and Razan, but which would also celebrate our common humanity.
We drew much inspiration from the words of one of the victims herself. In an interview last summer, Yusor Abu-Salha had said about growing up in America, “And that’s the beautiful thing here, is that it doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here we’re all one, one culture. And it’s beautiful to see people of different areas interacting, and being family. Being, you know, one community.” We’re all one. My students, even in their grief and fear, agreed. Just as ISIL does not represent Islam, they said, they knew that Hicks (the shooter) does not represent Atheism.
In Yusor’s StoryCorps interview, she asked her former teacher, Sister Mussarut Jabeen, what message she would tell the world. Her answer? “Live in peace.” But how do we accomplish that? When so much of the world seems to be divided by religious intolerance, suspicion, and hate, what motivates people to cross faith, racial, and other divides to support and stand with others in times of crisis, mourning, and danger?
Social science research gives us some answers. Looking to my own campus, I regularly see evidence of what Putman and Campbell call the ‘Pal Al effect’ – namely, that getting to know someone of a different religious identity positively increases the view a person has of that religion. Importantly, the positive effects of an interfaith relationship extend to other religious identities as well. As Robert Putman said in a lecture at Princeton University in 2010, “when you meet someone of a different religion, when someone from a different religion enters your five-closest-friends network, you become more tolerant toward all religions, not just that one new religion.”
C. Daryl Cameron and B. Keith Payne, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, speak of a phenomenon they call ‘the collapse of compassion’, noting that “people feel more compassion for one than for many,” in part because humans are more likely to feel that they can make a difference for an individual rather than a group, and that doing so will be more manageable in terms of cost and other factors. The good news of this and subsequent research, though, is that such a collapse of compassion is not inevitable.
As Cameron found, people can choose to feel compassion for mass suffering. This means that, whether or not we have the benefit of living somewhere in which we are likely to have the opportunity to get to know and engage with someone of a different faith, there are things that we can do – as community organizers, teachers, religious leaders, or simply as individuals who care and are committed to peace and justice – to foster the compassionate, concerned, and loving attitudes necessary for building solidarity across movements.
Examples can be found across the globe. From young Muslims forming a protective ring around a synagogue in Oslo, to Coptic Christians protecting Muslims during protests in Cairo, to Pakistani students forming a human shield for Hindus to celebrate Holi in Karachi, people of different backgrounds are making powerful declarations of love and solidarity. They are standing together in recognition of our shared humanity, embodying empathy and compassion rather than indifference, choosing love instead of hate.
At our campus vigil, I gave my students, fellow staff, and faculty a charge, a call to action. I reminded them that Hicks, the man who murdered Yusor, Deah, and Razan, had ample opportunity to get to know his Muslim neighbors. He chose instead to see them as stereotypes, relying on what he thought he knew about Islam to form hateful judgements about them. Peace, I told those gathered at the vigil, is something that does not simply happen. It must be actively engaged. My charge to them, then, was simple: “What will you do today to make this world a better, more peaceful place? What will you do, today and all days, to get to know someone of a different background? How will you break down the barriers that keep us apart?”
In his closing, student Mohsin Ishaq echoed these sentiments. “Who will stand with me?” he asked. Who will stand with the Muslim community and all those who wish for a more peaceful and just world? Who will make the choice to live with love and not fear? One by one, people of different religions, races, countries of origin, and gender stood in solidarity.
Lynne Marie Meyer serves as the Director of Spiritual Life, Diversity, and Service at Illinois Institute of Technology, and serves on the Illinois Campus Compact Advisory Council. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Master of Jewish Studies from Spertus Institute. Lynne is passionate about interfaith work and civic engagement, and works with Illinois Tech’s richly diverse population to make interfaith service a social norm on campus.