Better Together

What a whirlwind year! I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Champaign-Urbana community for your continued support of interfaith work, and also a very large thank you to the amazing executive board of Interfaith in Action! You guys are the greatest! When we started out this year, we had a whole group of new faces, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. Though we’ve had our share of bumps and panic-filled moments of crazy eyes, I’m really proud of us for sticking it out and bringing the Better Together campaign to a successful end.

In our very first foray into fundraising, we have raised almost $600 dollars for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank – which is a pretty good start! I remember the first day we were selling Krispy Kreme donuts and it was absolutely miserable. Freezing cold with gray clouds looming, it seemed like there was barely anyone out on the Quad. It was hard to muster the enthusiasm at first, but somehow we got a burst of energy and started to yell, “Donuts for a dollar! You know you want one! Support the Eastern Illinois Foodbank!”  The second day it got easier – not only because it was sunny, but because we realized that yelling at people is fun. Our Communications Chair, Tiffany, was shouting like it was her job to be our very own interfaith cheerleader; it was awesome! It was also really compelling to tell people about how the foodbank is able to stretch one dollar so that they can buy ten dollars worth of food. It was crazy how fast some of the boxes of donuts went when we told people that by buying a dozen for ten dollars, it’s the equivalent of buying one hundred dollars worth of food.

For our final event of the year, we decided to make our Bash a celebration of the fundraising work we had accomplished, but also the extremely successful religious literacy events we had. Our “speed-faithing” events started out small, sometimes with only executive board members in attendance, but by the end of the semester our attendees were numbering around forty. We had presentations by a number of different student groups about their faith backgrounds, including the Rastafari Movement, Catholicism, Jainism, Islam and Sikhism. We fully intend to continue presentations of this type for next year, and wanted to express our gratitude to those groups who have already participated.

It was so exciting to see so many different faiths represented at our Better Together Bash, playing games while sharing a meal and delicious cupcakes. I think part of the fun was hearing people who recognized each other from different groups and places. “I think you’re in my English class!” “Didn’t we live on the same floor last year?”  “I didn’t know that we had so many mutual friends!” It really showed how interfaith is really just a part of our daily lives; it’s happening all the time when we don’t even know it. I really hope it showed everyone who attended that we really are Better Together, and that they’re just as excited as I am to continue working together next year.

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All in the Family

This blog post was written by Emily Ansusinha, President of Interfaith in Action. Follow her here.

I don’t mean to brag (too much), but I probably have the coolest brother in the world. You know what? I’m adding my mom to that statement too. I’ll tell you why in just a bit.

I had two main reasons for choosing Islam as my area of focus within the Religious Studies major: 1) I would have a reason to take Arabic classes, and more importantly, 2) I didn’t know anything about Islam. Over the span of my college career, I’ve had the pleasure of taking courses such as Intro to Islam, Islamic Law and Salvation in Islamic Thought among other Religious Studies classes. I believe Islam to be a beautiful religion, even though I myself am not a practitioner.

During my sophomore year, I received a forwarded email from my mom with the subject title “Joys of Muslim Women”. The only thing my mom added to the forward was “Emily, what do you think of this?”. As I read through the forward I became increasingly angry; it contained claims that Muslim men were marrying infants or that they treat their wives like sexual toys. It also warns against the dangers of Islamic law saying, “It is amazing and alarming how many of our sisters and daughters attending American Universities are now marrying Muslim men and submitting themselves and their children unsuspectingly to the Shariah law.” The email concluded by asking everyone to forward the email to all their contacts, because if they didn’t, then the United States may have a Muslim president within the next twenty years. I replied to my mom with a long rant about how it was all wrong and completely ignorant. To summarize her reply, “Well, duh. I just wanted to know what you thought.”

A month later, I received another forward email from my mom entitled “Ft Hood Muslims”. This time her preface sentence said, “I know this will make you sick… Sorry, I’m just forwarding it to you, not believing it”. This email posed the question, “Can a Muslim make a good American?” According to whoever wrote this email, the answer is no on all counts. Here are a few examples:

“Theologically – no. Because his allegiance is to Allah, the moon god of Arabia.

Geographically – no. Because his allegiance is to Mecca , to which he turns in prayer five times a day.

Socially – no. Because his allegiance to Islam forbids him to make friends with Christians or Jews.

Philosophically – no. Because Islam, Muhammad, and the Quran do not allow freedom of religion and expression. Democracy and Islam cannot co-exist. Every Muslim government is either dictatorial or autocratic.”

There is so much that is wrong with these statements that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. When I went home for winter break a few weeks later, my mom told me that she had replied to her friend saying that she no longer wanted to receive these hateful forwards. I was so proud of my mom.

That was over a year ago, but today I have reason to be proud of another family member of mine. Reading Christopher Stedman’s blog, I was made aware of an anti-Muslim rally that took place on February 13th in Yorba Linda, Orange County, California. The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) Relief was holding a benefit dinner to raise money for local women’s shelters. While entering and exiting the event, Muslim attendees were being harassed by protesters flinging insults of “terrorist”, “molester” and “traitor”.

I was absolutely horrified while watching this video; I cried. How can anyone accuse the attendees of being rapists and abusers when the very event they are attending is raising money for battered women? How can anyone tell someone to “go back home” when their home is America? How can any person be so completely disrespectful and hateful to another human being? The organizer of the protest, Steven Amundson, said, “It’s not right for terrorism to come to Yorba Linda. I always stress the need to be peaceful and positive.” Well, I have news for you Steven. Firstly, Muslim does not equal terrorist. Secondly, while your protest may have been “peaceful” because there was no physical violence, the verbal attacks were vicious and spreading hate is in no way “positive”.

Filmmaker and advocate, Valarie Kaur, posted a link through her Twitter to the Common Ground Campaign – “a coalition of young people standing against hate speech and violence against Muslim Americans”. You can sign a charter pledging to overcome fear and find common ground. Only an hour after I posted both the Orange County protest video and a link to the CG Campaign on Facebook, my little brother, Alec,  commented saying that the Director of Student Life at Bard College at Simon’s Rock had given him permission to host a dialogue/movie screening and that he would have people sign the charter. Not going to lie, I cried again.

Of all the things I expected to come from posting a link on Facbook, my brother planning an interfaith event was not one of them, but I am so, SO proud of him, and glad to see that he’s growing up to be a compassionate and thoughtful young man. Love you, Alco, and can’t wait to see you over spring break!

Is your family Better Together? Mine definitely is.

Read more about the protest, here.
Learn more about the Common Ground Campaign, here.

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Celebrating Valentine’s Day the Right Way

Found this gem on facebook when a mutual friend commented on the note Raphael had written, and he graciously has allowed me to re-post it as part of our blog. Hope you all had a wonderful Valentine’s Day and that it was filled with the messages expressed by Raphael. – Emily, IIA President

This blog post was written by Raphael Garcia. He is currently a junior at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, IL, and is just a normal student who loves to get involved. He is hoping to make a difference in any way possible.

Behind all the red roses, heart-shaped boxes filled with candy, and mushy valentines lies a much deeper meaning. Valentine’s Day is a day to truly express your love for others and the world around you. We were all born to love and be loved. It’s a time to show love for others in need of it including: the sick, the injured, the poor, the lonely, the elderly, and many others in need. Valentine’s Day is not about the receiving, but rather the giving. On this special day we celebrate love, not the romantic Hallmark love, but rather the love that makes up each and every one of us. Behind all of our roles, personalities, and differences lies a living, loving being. We’ve all got love, it’s just a matter of what we do with it.Celebrate Valentine’s Day the right way by:

  • volunteering at a local soup kitchen, animal shelter, or favorite nonprofit organization, or even offer to tutor a child in need of your help. Love can be shared in many different ways.
  • looking for Valentine’s Day-themed fundraisers that support local nonprofit organizations or by throwing your own party, and donating the proceeds to charity. If you’re taking that special someone out for a pricey dinner, why not have your bill go to a good cause?
  • sending love letters not just to your sweetheart, but to people that are doing good things for the world. Tell them why you respect and appreciate their work, and that they really do make a difference. A simple thank you can mean the world to someone.
  • delivering homemade Valentine’s Day cards to the sick, the elderly, the homeless, and their caregivers. Call a local children’s hospital, nursing home, domestic violence or homeless shelter and ask how you can donate an hour or two of your time. Someone out there could really use your time.
  • giving gifts that give. There are dozens of charitable shopping sites and online nonprofit stores selling gifts for a good cause.
  • taking account for those who serve you. Think of all those people who make your life easier and more convenient every single day. give them a hug, a sincere smile, or just a smiple thank you. Showing your appreciation is a great way of sharing love.
  • getting a head start on spring-cleaning and donating clothes, toys, furniture, and household items to nonprofit organizations accepting them. Don’t take what you have for granted because there are others out there who have it worst.
  • not wasting anything for the day. Show mother nature that you care by reusing, reducing, and recycling. The Earth needs our love too.
  • signing up for a charity walk or run. Not only are you getting a great exercise, but you are helping someone out there who is less fortunate then you are.
  • choosing a restaurant that sources its meat from sustainable, humanely treated and harvested animals & farms. Show the animals some love too.
  • continuing to support disaster relief. There are still many out there struggling from hurricanes, earthquakes, and such and we can’t forget about them.

February 14-20th is Random Acts of Kindness Week. What can you do? Pay for a coffee, lunch, or a toll for the person behind you in line. Tape the exact change for a soda to a vending machine. Send cards with joyful messages to strangers. Collect canned goods for a food bank. Shovel a neighbor’s driveway, or babysit a friend’s child, for free. http://www.randomactsofkindness.org/

Valentine’s Day to me is about reaching out to others, healing the world, making it a better place for you, me, and the entire human race.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWf-eARnf6U

Valentine’s Day is about accepting each others differences and looking beyond the imperfections of the world and each other. To me love is knowing all about someone, and still wanting to be with them more than any other person, love is trusting them enough to tell them everything about yourself, including the things you might be ashamed of, love is feeling comfortable and safe with someone, but still getting weak knees when they walk into a room and smile at you. Valentine’s Day is day where you can be someones shoulder and be their armor guiding them into a blissful life. My Valentine’s Day wish for ya’ll is comfort on difficult days, smiles when sadness intrudes, rainbows to follow the clouds, laughter to kiss your lips, sunsets to warm your heart, hugs when spirits sag, beauty for your eyes to see, friendships to brighten your being, faith so that you can believe, confidence for when you doubt, courage to know yourself, patience to accept the truth, and love to complete your life.

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Keeping the Holidays Politically Correct

First of all, Happy New Year! It’s a time to reflect on the past year, make goals for the new one, and to watch the Twilight Zone marathon.

Like most other college students this winter, I’ve been reveling in the joy of purely doing nothing. Last week, cocooned in a pile of blankets, I started watching NBC’s new series Outsourced. It’s about a young, American salesman who comes back from corporate training to discover that all the jobs at his company have been outsourced to India. If he wants to keep his job as call manager, he must relocate to India and oversee a misfit group of workers – the girl who never speaks, the one who never stops talking, the one trying to sabotage him, and of course the attractive one. You get the idea.

As I watched the episodes, I had a vague feeling of discomfort. Indian stereotypes are highlighted and a source of entertainment for this show. How would my friends feel about seeing their culture parodied in such a way? How would a show like this be received in India or other countries? My discomfort came to a peak when I watched the episode “Home for the Diwalidays”. Todd, the ignorant American, comes to the office and is surprised to find his employees dressed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. He is even more surprised to find that they expect to have the afternoon off from work as well as the rest of the five-day holiday! Earlier in the season, Todd was tricked into thinking there was an Indian holiday called “Jolly Vindaloo Day”, and so thinks that the employees are playing another prank.

All the employees contribute to the explanation of Diwali, saying that it is “about the triumph of good over evil, the beginning of the new year, and it marks the end of the harvest. It [also] commemorates Lord Rama’s glorious return after 14 years of exile and his defeat of the demon king Ravana.”

Todd, trying to understand then exclaims, “Wow! So it’s like a combination of Christmas, New Year’s, 4th of July and Star Wars?”

An employee, Asha, laughingly replies that Todd should “just think of it like Christmas, it’s where families get together. They exchange gifts.” (Yes, I did watch this scene many, many times to write down all the quotes!)

I am torn as to how I should feel about this episode. On the one hand, people watching Outsourced who have never before heard of Diwali have now had some exposure, however small, to a Hindu religious holiday. On the other hand, the significance behind both Diwali and Christmas is diluted by making two very different holidays equivalent to each other. I’m sure that many Hindus would not appreciate having Diwali called “Hindu Christmas”, just as many Christians would not want Christmas to be referred to as “Christian Diwali”.

Though Todd still doesn’t truly understand Diwali, the comparison to Christmas makes him realize that this is truly an important holiday for his employees and does his best to convince corporate that they should receive time off. After all, no one would have been expected to work had it been Christmas. Told that since it is an American company, the employees cannot expect to get Indian holidays off from work, Todd decides to let his employees go anyway and to do all the work himself – slightly redeeming himself in my eyes.

This brings me to what I feel is an important issue, especially in America. Have you ever noticed that winter or spring break often coincides with Christmas and Easter? Did your elementary school inexplicably have a day off of school on Good Friday, like mine did? Maybe. How about on Eid? Probably not. Bodhi Day? Also unlikely. This past semester I was in a class entitled “Exploring Religious Diversity” where we discussed the difficulties facing non-Christians when celebrating their holidays. A Jewish classmate brought up her experience with a difficult TA who refused to excuse her from class on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Sukkot; she had to talk to the dean of students in order to be able to leave class. My teacher said that she has to pick and choose which of her Buddhist holidays to take off work for, because she would have to use all her vacation and sick days if she chose not to work on all of them.

As a secular student raised in a Christian household, I cannot even pretend to understand how it must feel to be unable to celebrate a holiday or worship due to work or school-related obligations. Just a few years ago, I myself was guilty of thinking Hannukah and Christmas to be comparable holidays due to their proximity in the calendar year. Like Todd, I would probably have readily accepted the explanation that Diwali is similar to Christmas. So how do we address this problem and increase education about holidays from traditions other than our own? Is it simply enough to say, “Happy holidays!” instead of always wishing everyone “Merry Christmas!”? Is it the responsibility of the people in these faith traditions to teach others about their holidays? Is it even possible for schools and workplaces to give students and employees time off for all religious holidays?

I don’t really have the answers to some of these questions, but I firmly believe that increasing interfaith education, especially for young people, will only help with any future policy changes we may wish to see regarding excused absences for holidays.

Interested in keeping up to date on religious holidays? BBC has a fantastic interfaith calendar on their website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/tools/calendar/

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Have no fear, Interfaith is here!

So an atheist in interfaith, eh? As an atheist myself, a couple years ago, that would have sounded to me like nothing more than a contradiction in terms. This comes from the simple fact that when one hears the word “interfaith”, it’s easy and even somewhat reasonable to come away with the idea that the only people who are involved in interfaith work are those that have, in some way shape or form, faith. But, this is simply not true. If faith is the requirement for participation in Interfaith, than Buddhism, Shintoism and a plethora of other major world religions would be barred entry. This, I can assure you, is as far from the truth as possible. They do not have the concept of faith yet, being that they are religions are involved heavily with interfaith work.

In fact, I would argue that if an atheist or non-religious person avoids interfaith because they think faith is a necessary requirement to be involved, they are guilty of committing what is known in logic as the genetic fallacy. One commits the genetic fallacy when you draw a conclusion by disregarding current use of a word and the context in which the word is used and choose to go with what a word originally meant or previously meant.  This happens because words can and do have their meanings change. For example, psychology, in its original Greek roughly translates to “study of the soul”. Most psychologists would be somewhat confused if you told them that they spend their time studying and researching the soul. In the same way, interfaith does not simply mean a gathering of people of faith. Interfaith means people with theological differences who come together to learn about each other and to work towards the common good based on shared values.

The interfaith community is one that prides itself on allowing each member to maintain their full religious identity and non-religious identity. The whole point of interfaith is not to change member’s theological beliefs, but to build bridges by emphasizing shared values such as compassion towards the poor, service to the needy and giving food to the hungry. This is in order to combat religious intolerance while, at the same time, doing service for the community. A great side effect of interfaith work that through interfaith work, stereotypes are broken, friendships are forged across religious lines and you simply learn a lot about people that you would never, in any other context, have a chance to meet.

The atheist, simply put, has nothing to fear and her or his presence and can only do good in the interfaith community.  We are simply here to combat intolerance and to try to do our part to make the world a better place. You, as an atheist and a non-religious person, could help more than you know.

Adam Garner, IIA Service Coordinator

Further readings on atheists involved in interfaith work

: http://nonprophetstatus.com/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-stedman/atheist-students-find-the_b_775707.html

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Interfaith Cooperation in the Least Likely of Places

I read the news obsessively every hour. Having an iPhone makes it easy for me to get AP News Alerts of the news as it happens. As I open up articles, I process the information, fit them into well-known news categories and store it in my memory. Very rarely do I read something that challenges the methodical way I deal with the same stories of violence that I see over and over again. But recently, I read a story that made me pause.

The headline read, “Iraq Christians Vow To Survive, With Muslim Help”. The story begins with the countless violence that Iraqi Christians face in their country. There are bombings during Sunday services, vehicle bombings and shootings of priests and acolytes. The violence seems inescapable. Their every day life is a struggle to maintain their religious identity and live in peace. It seemed like I was going to shelve this piece of news in the usual category of religious violence destroying lives. But then I caught a line that shifted my perception of this story.

While prominent Christian figures advised Christians to leave the country, others called for staying in their homeland. The most compelling argument for staying in the country even came from a Muslim man. Sayed Hassan al-Husaayni is the imam at the mosque close to the bombed church and beautifully said that his congregation and himself, “condemn the attacks that have struck the Christians. They are our brothers and we have been living with them for centuries. I believe they are the victims of a terrorist organization, but I’m positive that Iraqi Muslims respect their brothers.” It would have been very easy for him to not stand up for the right of his Christian brothers and sisters to practice their religion, but he did. There is only one category that I could place this story in and that was the beauty of interfaith work.

In a country that is torn in two, facing turmoil on many fronts from war to religious violence, there are still people who place importance on not just coexistence but cooperation of different faiths. Sayed Hassan al-Husaayni defied the norm of just ignoring what was happening to his Christian neighbors. If this can happen in a place where violence is the every day norm why can’t it happen here? His example proves that interfaith cooperation can definitely be a social norm in not just this country but all over the world.

Aditi Singh, IIA Vice President of Campus Outreach

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Interfaith Ninjas or Little Things

I think that one of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned from the planning sessions for the What IF? Speak-In and the event itself is that sometimes it’s the little things that count the most. Between the frustrations of generating interest and finding a suitable venue, I found myself still smiling. My planning team was made up of interfaith ninjas – spreading our message so subtly that people didn’t know what had hit them. Adam prowled the Undergraduate Library and slipped What IF stickers into sleeping students’ backpacks or under their arms as they diligently worked on homework. Aditi infiltrated the residence halls, catching people on their way to and from class. Laisa and Katie handed out information on the Quad during the passing period.

Pretty soon What IF starts showing up in unexpected places. A classmate of mine whom I had never spoken to before had a What IF sticker on their laptop. Someone wearing a sticker served Katie pizza on Green Street. My roommate came home from class to tell me about how Aditi presented in her African Literature class. Just these little changes in awareness can help the interfaith movement to flourish. What if dozens or hundreds of people see a cool purple sticker on someone’s laptop or binder? What if people started to think about interfaith as they ate their pizza that day? What if my roommate becomes interested in interfaith as more than just something Emily seems to spend time doing?

When people began to filter in for the Speak-In, I was terrified. I wanted everyone to leave with a great sense of excitement for interfaith, Better Together and ending hunger in our community. Once we got started though, I found there wasn’t anything to worry about. As we split into small groups for dialogue and brainstorming, I could feel the energy in the room rising. Ideas were born, discussed and written down to share with the other groups. Each group began to make the trek to the far wall where our empty What IF mural hung. Stickers and tape were used to bring all our ideas together – many of them similar.

As people left with all the ideas churning in their heads, I only got a chance to talk to a few, but it was like a light had been turned on for them. A friend, Anne, came up to me to pepper me with the questions, “Why haven’t you pressured me more to come to these events? Why didn’t I bring all my friends from the Social Work Department? Why wasn’t I involved earlier?! When can I start?” For someone who had never attended an interfaith-related event before, it was an amazing transformation. To think that her reason for attending was because she didn’t want to write a paper!

No, we didn’t have hundreds of people turn out for our event, but I’ve learned that to even have affected only one person, like Anne, is a great triumph. If each person who attended tells a friend, who tells another friend, the group of dedicated interfaith leaders will continue to expand and grow. All those little things that I used to discount as unimportant are now coming together to form the bigger picture – a beautiful mosaic of fresh ideas, cooperation and inspiring relationships.

Our What IF mural of ideas

Emily Ansusinha, Interfaith in Action President

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