Together in faith on Burton Street

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How do we begin to change the cultural narrative of hate, anxiety and fear towards people of different faiths? For these three congregations in Grand Rapids, the answer starts with sharing food and creating new friendships together on Burton Street.


These words, in bright, bold letters, are written in marker across a vibrant poster that greets you as you enter the Islamic Center of West Michigan on Burton Street. In the weeks following the 2016 presidential election, the congregation of Boston Square Christian Reformed Church delivered this poster as a sign of welcome to the members of the Islamic Center. With signatures, warm messages, hearts, and smiley faces filling the entire sign, this poster was one of many letters and flower arrangements brought to the mosque by their neighbors, proudly on display for members and visitors to pass as they enter.


Each of these gestures of encouragement and solidarity are a response to our present cultural narrative, specifically regarding the anxiety surrounding the Muslim community. In the southeast community, the Islamic Center, the first in West Michigan, has, over the years, received occasional emails containing threats and has had to deal with protesters at their door.  As fear and hate continue to rise in this country, stemming from a polarized political landscape and an increase in Islamophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee sentiments, members of the Grand Rapids community believe a new narrative needs to be written.


In January of 2017, the Peace and Justice Task Force of the Interfaith Service Council began a listening tour at the mosques and Islamic centers in Grand Rapids to hear from our Muslim neighbors about what their experiences have been like and how other congregations might stand with and support them.


“We wanted to listen to their concerns and be supportive of them, both now and in the long-term future,” says Doug Kindschi, Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, an organization that promotes interfaith understanding and mutual respect in West Michigan. “The public narrative calls for an alternate narrative that reaches into our deep belief that all persons are created in the image of God. As such, we respect them and work for their inclusion and welcome them into our shared life.”


During this conversation with the Islamic Center of West Michigan, leaders and members of the mosque expressed a very real and very deep concern for what they have been hearing in the news from those in power.


One member of the mosque remarked, “We are very worried. Will Trump and his cabinet actually do what he says they will do? We don’t know and that is scary to us.”


However, despite receiving the occasional email threat or protesters at their door in the past, they shared that people in Grand Rapids are generally quite nice and very supportive. They were eager to share all the wonderful letters, flowers and signs of support they have received since the late fall. Over wonderful food and amidst hearty laughter, the group shared that they would love for people to know that true Islam is nothing like the portrayals depicted in the news.

Dr. Sharif Sahibzada

My faith’s requirement is to look for commonalities among people of the book (an Islamic term for those who are Christian and Jewish) for peaceful purposes, extend sincere cooperation based on righteousness, being mindful of the merciful God, not to cooperate to sinful actions and transgression,” says Dr. Sharif Sahibzada, Director and Imam of the Islamic Center of West Michigan, the oldest mosque in Grand Rapids. “The faith’s application and practice under these guidelines creates the strongest neighborhood to serve humankind for its betterment in general and, particularly among neighbors, to remove all sorts of destructive tendencies and distorted narratives.”


Hopeful for what the future may hold, the members of the Islamic Center, located in the southeast neighborhood of Grand Rapids, were eager to partner with local churches that were ready to respond with peace and help to diffuse fear and anxiety. More than anything else, they were excited for new relationships with churches so that “the other” or “the stranger” could become a friend, maybe even family.


In just a few short weeks, that hope for new relationships would become a reality.


On Jan. 26, the four area imams hosted a collective listening tour called “Standing Together” at Masjid At-Tawheed to discuss their experiences, the experiences of the families in their mosques, and their hopes for the future, including the opportunity for new congregational partnerships and relationships. Nearly 200 people showed up for a delightful evening of fantastic food, honest conversation, and the start of new friendships.


This dinner launched a new “Standing Together Partnership” initiative that pairs together local churches and mosques, along with Temple Emanuel, an area synagogue, as a means of changing the community narrative from one of fear to one of understanding and reconciliation.

These are sister congregations that can provide mutual support and safe spaces for each other, provide healthy places for relationships and solidarity to grow.These new partnerships allow for congregations and their families to learn about, advocate for, and, if necessary, protect one another as beloved neighbors. One of these partnership cohorts is made up of the Islamic Center of West Michigan, Boston Square Christian Reformed Church, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.


Dr. Sahbizada at the Islamic Center of West Michigan“This partnership is the best common option for people of the book to create strongest unity under this banner to eradicate hate crimes, extremism, terrorism, and prejudices against each other, along with the misunderstanding being spread in all corners by various sources, simply by reaching out,” Dr. Sahibzada noted.


As the clergy from these three congregations met to learn about one another and to plan how their congregations could come together, a beautiful gathering unfolded.


On March 26, following Sunday worship for Boston Square and St. Andrew's, and following Sunday Islamic School for the mosque, around 100 people packed into the incredibly hospitable West Michigan Islamic Center for a delightful afternoon of pizza and baklava. The leaders from each congregation shared a few words, and the mosque invited guests to observe the afternoon prayer.


“We are excited by the opportunity for us to join in a partnership with our faith partners from The Islamic Center and Boston Square Christian Reformed Church. We are blessed to learn more about the faith of fellow believers,” says Rev. Michael Fedewa, Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.“As we learn more about the belief of others, we learn more about our own faith as well.”


That afternoon, as children played together, running all around, youth sat in circles off in the corners, snapping and tweeting, and adults stood together, meeting one another and laughing about the downpour outside, it felt as if the center was hosting a joyful family reunion.


“This is not just about faith, it’s about fellowship, and fun. It's about serving our community in the name of God,” says Rev. Fedewa. “We are all sons and daughters of God. We share life as residents of our community and our country. This is an opportunity for us to celebrate the dignity of difference.”


What began with the occasional meeting has slowly become a beautiful partnership of mutual encouragement and friendship. Hopeful for what is yet to come, members of our faith communities believe this relationship will continue to give life to those bright, bold words of solidarity with one another: “OUR NEIGHBORS, WE SUPPORT YOU. WE LOVE YOU!”

Kyle Kooyers is a Program Manager for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute of Grand Valley State University. He is responsible for community-based interfaith engagement and dialogue activities, networking faith and non-faith congregations and organizations, and facilitating the efforts of the Interfaith Service Council and its task forces. Originally from Southwestern Pennsylvania, Kyle has spent several years exploring asset-based community development and organizational capacity building in various contexts, and is presently completing a Master of Divinity at Calvin Theological Seminary. You can contact Kyle Kooyers by emailing him at [email protected]. Find the Kaufman Interfaith Institute on Facebook or @GRINterfaith on Twitter.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.

Photography by Dreams by Bella.

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