The first James Parks Morton International Visiting Fellows Program at the Interfaith Center of New York drew to a close with the knowledge that we have personally and spiritually connected with our new faith leader friends from Barcelona, Spain and Glasgow, Scotland. We hate to see them go. From June 15 to 24, 2009, we learned a great deal about how our respective cities cope with immigration challenges and how we can better work to improve social justice. When we thought we in New York were doing things well, we saw through the eyes of our sixteen faith leaders that we weren’t. And our new friends have experienced several ah-hah moments in their week where they saw roads to self-improvement
Our visiting delegates got a good taste of what is happening in the US in terms of immigration. In our Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer retreat June 16 and 17, they heard the difficult stories immigrants whose families are often torn apart due to deportation. They admired the fact that immigration activists recognize the power of religious leaders and seek to tap it. They were surprised at the religious and ethnic diversity in Queens. They listened with envy to US religious leaders describe the ease with which they establish and build new places of worship, to the number of lawyers defending civil rights in the city Human Rights office and to the passion mental health advocates on a borough immigration task force bring to their job. And most of all, knowing we are a country of immigrants, they marveled that we are still struggling with how best to fully include newcomers into our society.
They also brought new perspectives to the table, pointing out where we could do better. A recurring comment was the gap between what city and state government offers immigrants and the actual grassroots outreach. Glasgow Councilor Irfan Rabbani pointed out to a state court district attorney that the government at all levels in Scotland takes the initiative in many instances where the US does not. As an illustration, Glasgow Sikh Ravinder Kaur Nijjar was refused entrance to several city buildings during her week in New York because she, like other baptized Sikhs, wears a kirpan, a ceremonial dagger or sword that is a religiously mandated article of faith. City spokespersons say the US Sikh community has not complained of being excluded from city buildings, so they offer no religious exemption. It is a matter of pro-active engagement.
What do we really mean by integration, questioned Scottish Inter Faith Center youth coordinator, Magdalen Lambkin. Despite our diversity, does every person in New York City really feel comfortable in every borough and can they move fluently through all sections of society? Catalan interfaith magazine editor Manuel Perez presented New York City’s contradictions: Wall Street and Harlem, Ellis Island’s open door to European immigrants and the airport double-checking of his delegation’s sole Muslim.
What is most apparent throughout our week of roundtables, conferences, religious services and even a visit to a jazz club is that the ICNY is doing a lot right. Where city and state governments are challenged to connect with immigrant communities, ICNY builds bridges between religious leaders, their communities and government agencies, such as the court system. We think we have earned the respect and friendship of our foreign friends. We look forward to increased ties and future fellowship trips to their cities to continue building bridges.
As Glasgow Muslim leader Dr. Salah Beltagui observed at the Closing Symposium, we all must continue to improve our systems, to do as Muslims call it, the good deed. The work is never over.