It is understandable that we have questions about a faith tradition with which we are unfamiliar, but it is another thing when we are flat-out suspicious, mistrusting, and hateful, especially when we have had very little to no meaningful interaction with any members of that group. I believe this speaks to what is happening now in New York City and in the rest of the country in regards to the mounting opposition directed at current plans for mosques and Islamic centers. I would venture to say that much of the mistrust toward Islam is based on misinformation that comes from failing to take the time to build relationships and partnerships with the Muslim communities in the area. Many Muslim groups out there are trying to educate people about their faith, but resistance only severs opportunities to learn and be enriched. Direct experience often clarifies misconceptions, and this is one of the reasons why interfaith partnerships have a more important role than ever to play in transforming such a hostile climate. These partnerships manifest the kind of solidarity and learning that is needed at this time.
The Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY) is currently involved in a yearlong interfaith endeavor, the Muslim-Catholic Partnership in Social Services Project, which aims to foster partnerships, and ultimately, meaningful relationships between Muslim and Catholic communities in New York City. Of course, the hope is that these relationships will continue to grow even after the project year comes to an end. Even more, the idea is for this project to be a model that can be duplicated in other parts of the country.
One of the project’s most important features is that it seeks to bring Muslims and Catholics together in the context of social services. While jointly working on meaningful social service projects that address overlapping concerns, the communities involved have an opportunity to learn more about each other’s faith traditions, especially in regards to the way in which these faith traditions inform social action and service. As a result, the hope is that the Muslim and Catholic partners will establish a relationship of reciprocity in which an interfaith-based network is created that can better serve their joint communities.
Through the Muslim-Catholic Partnership in Social Services Project, the ICNY is participating in the partnering of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, and affiliated social service agencies and parishes, with local mosques, Islamic centers, schools, and Muslim social service organizations. Since Catholic Charities is the primary partner on the Catholic side, the various social service projects are being developed within the Archdiocese of New York, which includes the boroughs of Staten Island, Manhattan, and the Bronx. The idea is to have a partnership project in each of the three boroughs.
The Muslim-Catholic Partnerships in Social Services Project in the Bronx is currently well underway. A food pantry run by the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development (MWIRD) is collaborating with a Catholic Charities-supported food pantry at St. Francis of Assisi and “Rusty’s Rolling Van” Mobile Food Pantry. Representatives of Catholic Charities, the ICNY, and the Highbridge-based pantries have gotten together to participate in several initiatives in the last few months. The first initiative was in regards to the 2010 Census, and the partners came together for an afternoon workshop offered by the Census Bureau. Since Highbridge is an historically underserved part of the city, the Census was an opportunity to provide the government with accurate numbers so that resources would be properly allocated to the area. However, many people in the neighborhood had concerns about filling out the Census form; therefore, the purpose of the workshop was to prepare the pantry workers to provide Census-related assistance and information to the clients of the pantries. The workshop was also a platform for representatives of the Catholic and Muslim communities to share about the teachings of their faith in regards to social services and social justice. After the 2010 Census, there was a follow-up meeting to reflect on the outcome of the initiative. Since then, there has been one other initiative, which entailed coming together to write letters to City Council members and members of Congress concerning access to funds set aside for food security.
Particularly poignant in light of recent events, the project will also bring Muslims and Catholics together in Staten Island to help fix up and paint places of worship. The community service project will give those involved a chance to learn more about the other religion while mutually affirming everyone’s right to build and maintain houses of worship.
In regards to the project in Manhattan, a partnership is forming between Catholic Charities and three imams in Harlem. As a follow-up to several meetings that have focused on needs in the community, the imams will be meeting with the Director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services to learn more about the services that Catholic Charities offers to immigrants. The meetings will culminate into a social service project based in Harlem.
It is projects like these that will continue to challenge people’s fears and biases regarding other faith traditions. These projects truly create a space for the participants to be in solidarity as they address mutual social concerns and issues of social justice while promoting religious freedom.
Joshua Bishop is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology at Fordham University.