An interfaith group recently embarked on a 10-city Maryland tour, titled “We Are One Community: A Caravan of Religious Leaders for Reconciliation,” with a goal of educating communities about preventing religious and racially motivated hate crimes.
Sponsored by Clergy Beyond Borders (CBB), the caravan stopped at synagogues, churches, mosques and public venues in cities such as Annapolis, Salisbury, College Park and Frederick. On Oct. 27, the caravan, which had clergy of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other faiths, ended its five-day tour with visits to Rockville and Baltimore.
The caravan is, in a way, the mobile version of CBB, an organization promoting interfaith tolerance, headed by its president, Imam Yahya Hendi and its executive director, Rabbi Gerald Serotta. Both were members of the caravan and Serotta serves as the spiritual leader of Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase.
The two main goals for the Maryland tour were to use its programs to advocate pluralism and diversity to prevent religious and racially bias conflicts, and to create Rapid Response Networks (RNN) in the communities it visited. The RNN would be a way for community and religious leaders to collaborate and respond to religious and racially motivated hate crimes. (According to recent FBI statistics, U.S. law enforcement reported 6,222 hate crimes in 2011. Of those incidents, 50 percent were racially motivated, 20 percent were motivated by religious bias and around 12 percent were motivated by ethnicity or nationality bias).
The goal of collaboration and response will involve a follow-up meeting in December in Baltimore, where members of the caravan hope to create a statewide RNN.
Each program the caravan presented varied, depending on the needs and the history of the particular community it visited. At certain venues, caravan members met with public officials who lent support.
This isn’t the first time the caravan has gone on tour. In 2011, the caravan, simply titled the Caravan of Reconciliation, traveled to 18 communities in 11 states with the purpose of exposing and confronting threats to American pluralism.
One state in particular was Tennessee, whose state legislature at the time was proposing its anti-Sharia law, which many critics say promotes Islamophobia. The law still stands today in Tennessee and other Midwest and Southern states, but the Caravan reported it was able to come in contact with Tennesseans who were strongly opposed to the law and are working to amend it. Overall, the 2011 effort attracted more than 6,000 people.
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rockville on Oct. 27, an interfaith program was held, which featured reports from the caravan, as well as speakers from 12 local interfaith councils. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett was also in attendance.
“Montgomery County recognizes cultural and religious differences,” Leggett said during the program, which was open to the public. “We do it not just from words, but from practice.” He then added that although Montgomery County is enlightened in many ways, it still has its challenges.
Speakers from the various interfaith councils included Hytham Younis, the co-founder of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS).
“[JIDS] honors God’s word and promotes interfaith tolerance,” he said. JIDS, which was founded in 2009, is a prime example of the caravan’s message. The organization brings Jews and Muslims together through monthly dialogues, with the goal of enlightening both groups about each other, to eventually work on projects that benefit the community.
“Focusing on this particular relationship with these boundaries is a way of getting issues resolved,” Younis said.
But perhaps one of the simplest ways of integrating faiths can occur through music. Before anyone spoke, Dr. Rajwant Singh and Sucha Singh performed a hymn in the Sikh tradition. Although most of the hymn was sung in Punjabi, the performers invited attendees to sing along, and many of them did, despite not knowing the language or much about the Sikh faith.
To learn more about Clergy Beyond Borders and its efforts to promote pluralism, go to clergybeyondborders.org.