In response to racial, ethnic and religious hate crimes and rhetoric, many are looking for ways to foster tolerance and celebrate diversity. In the Richmond area, many years of interfaith dialogues between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities have led to a new tradition. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn more: Find information about the Interfaith Trialogues in Bon Air, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation and the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond.
A stream of people enter Bon Air United Methodist Church carrying big bowls of salad and rice, trays of lasagne and mujaddara, and plates of kebabs and kugel. By the desserts, Mary Etta Boyce is slicing up some pie.
Mary Etta Boyce: Wonderful, yummy, homemade pies here. What an embarassment of riches..
The food fills eight long tables, and it’s as diverse as those gathering: people of different faiths, ages, races and ethnicities.
Imad Damaj: I think people are thirsty to get to know each other.
Imad Damaj worships and volunteers at the Islamic Center of Virginia.
Damaj: And one of the best ways to bring people together is to break some bread together over a meal and that’s how a lot of conversations happen.
In Bon Air, faith leaders have been convening “trialogues” for about a decade, where people of different religions and backgrounds have conversations, share meals and strengthen bonds. Tonight’s event builds on those relationships. It’s one of the first community potlucks for Iftar, the meal during the holy month of Ramadan to break the daylong fast. Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders share stories about fasting, a tradition in many religions. Imam Ammar Amonette tells the crowd that for Muslims, Ramadan is a sacrifice and a time of great joy.
Ammar Amonette: This is the real America, there’s nothing more American than an interfaith breaking of the fast where we’re not threatened by each other (applause)... We’re joinging together, sharing from our own traditions and experiences sharing from our neighbors and appreciating each others’ hospitality and graciousness and learning to know each other, learning about each other.
State leaders also came to show their support, including Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Terry McAuliffe: We want to be part of this very special occasion, and when you think about the holy month of Ramadan and how important that is, and the message it conveys, I want everybody to understand that from day one, our administration has fought to make sure Virginia is open and welcome to everyone. And to every member of the Muslim faith, let me be very clear on behalf of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia, we love you, we respect you and we thank you for your contribution to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America (applause).
At 8:31 pm, the breaking of the fast begins with a call to prayer.
Imad Damaj: That’s your sign, break your fast...
Guests pour glasses of water for each other and pass around a bowl of dates. After Muslim participants finish praying, the fellowship hall grows animated with conversations and laughter.
Mazin Nasir: My name is Mazin Nasir, I’m a current VCU student, senior, studying mechanical engineering at VCU. It’s really awesome to have community come out and have dialogues and sit down together and discuss our differences and what our similarities are.
Iman Bjehiche: My name is Iman and I’m 15 years old. Since there’s a lot of diversity within many religions and such, bringing food together spreads the whole cultural aspect of which foods each person would eat, especially during a time as important as Ramadan when you break your fast.
Nancy Wein: What’s really funny is up until this year, I’ve never been to one Iftar.
Nancy Wein has been to three in recent weeks. One was at a family’s home. Another drew about 150 people at First Congregational Christian United Church Of Christ.
Wein: People got together similarly to what they’re doing tonight, so you had a very large group of community people from all over and then we had just a great time. It was fun and the church was very, very warm and welcoming.
Wein’s group Richmonders for Peace in Israel and Palestine helped organize the event with the Arab-American Association of Central Virginia. Adeeb Abed is that group’s president.
Adeeb Abed: To see the different faiths, the different colors, the different ethnicities that were there, it is reflective of the true greatness of our country.
Interfaith dialogues have been going on in the Commonwealth for decades. In fact, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, which co-sponsored the Iftar potluck in Bon Air, traces its beginnings to Lynchburg in 1930s. In the last few years, as hate rhetoric and crimes have become more visible and documented, the organization says the demand for their programs hasincreased by 1300%.
Dennis Beck-Berman: You had a group of various faith groups in Richmond to show their solidarity…
Rabbi Dennis Beck-Berman is with Congregation Brith Achim in Petersburg.
Beck-Berman: I think the fact that it’s sponsored by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and the Islamic Center and being held in a church, the three partnerships go a long way to make visible in a clear way that we’re all in need of working together to bring the communities to greater understanding and coexistence. And if it happened all over the world, it might be a better world.
Beck-Berman says the dialogues and trialogues are about education, understanding and building relationships. That’s critical when the community wants to come together to respond to hateful rhetoric, policies and phsycal attacks.
Beck-Berman: All of the local bishops and rabbis and imams said it’s important to be able to know each other, to know who to call and where to call and the person you’re talking to knows who you are, you have a certain amount of trust that’s built up so when the next event happens you’re not trying to build a new bridge, it’s there.
Adeeb Abed: To invite three or four neighbors from each side and have them over to your house for a dinner or to your backyard for a cookout.
Abed also says members of different faith groups could attend each other’s religious events. As we get to know each other better, says Abed, there will be less fertile ground for hate and bigotry and more opportunities to learn and grow because of this country’s diversity.
Abed: We are the melting pot, without losing our individual identity. We view America as a mosaic, a tapestry of different nationalities, different backgrounds, different religions, and to make one different thread - each thread holds on to its own characteristics, but we make a beautiful rug.
Imad Damaj: Tonight was about bringing communities together…
Again, Imad Damaj with the Islamic Center of Virginia.
Damaj: Tonight is about saying we are going to respond to all this climate we have, not by being more divisive or more partisan by saying let’s talk with each other, let’s cross these divides, let’s know each other. Simple things, tell me about your fasting, I’ll tell you about my fasting. Let’s eat together, break some fast, come and visit me, I’ll come and visit you.
Other groups working to build interfaith understanding and cooperation include the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.