By Mark Scheel
On 4 July in Joplin, Missouri, a fire broke out on the roof of the Islamic Society of Joplin mosque, apparently an act of arson. Firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze before the building sustained significant damage. However, a second fire of unknown origin, which many are concerned is arson, appeared on 6 August and burnt the mosque to the ground.
Because Joplin lies within a Midwest region internationally known for its exemplary atmosphere of interfaith tolerance, understanding and acceptance, these events present a particularly striking and disheartening contrast. They have prompted this area’s interfaith community to ask what more can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future.
Relationships across group lines are especially crucial when dealing with the vulnerability and fear that comes from the aftermath of violence. When such an incident occurs, it is vital for the community to band together in support of those affected — which is exactly what is happening in Joplin, and beyond. Sojourners, a national Christian advocacy group for social justice, is calling for donations to fund an ad in The Joplin Globe newspaper assuring the Muslim community that they “are loved, the attack…was immoral, and an attack on religious liberty everywhere.”
In Joplin, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church provided a venue for an iftar dinner, the breaking of the Muslim Ramadan fast, as the Muslim congregation had lost their own space for the event. Members of several other churches and the United Hebrew Congregation participated. And an online fundraiser for the Islamic Society of Joplin through the fundraising website indiegogo.com has raised more than $300,000 – surpassing its original goal of $250,000.
Along with face-to-face interaction, media can also contribute to promoting understanding.
Scott Parks, a former journalist and Kansas City radio talk-show host, is not one to shy away from controversial religious topics. He has repeatedly stressed the important role the media can play in enhancing positive coverage of different faiths’ activities within the region. According to Parks, accurate, informative reporting on ceremonies and gatherings conducted by different faith groups that are open to the public can serve an important community educational function and promote increased understanding across faith lines.
Beth Rieke, an elementary teacher in Shawnee Mission, Kansas and a participant in the work of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, is an advocate of stepping up student interfaith activities and studies in the classroom. Through this work, she has been able to dispel misconceptions about Islam in combined-class discussion groups and among fellow faculty members. Her husband, Greg Rieke, Christian liaison with the Raindrop Turkish House, a Muslim organisation that supports cross-cultural understanding, has personally witnessed the benefit of this work. He emphasises promoting interfaith messages more widely to educators, clergy and politicians who may be in a position to influence the thinking of large segments of the public.
Last May, in observance of the one year anniversary of a devastating tornado that struck Joplin, destroying nearly one third of the city, residents organised an interfaith celebration at Landreth Park, joining together in prayer, song and worship to heal as a community. Participants shared readings from the Bible, the Qur’an and the Torah.
This week Nihad Awad, the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that the same spirit exhibited after the tornado needed to be revived in response to the fire at the mosque. Following the tornado, the mosque was a host for workers from AmeriCorps, Catholic Charities and other groups and churches. Now the opportunity has arisen for the Joplin citizenry to reciprocate.
Groups and individuals from this community who are taking up this call are living examples of how to promote environments that foster understanding in the wake of tragedy.
The key seems to be that fostering deeper understanding among peoples of different faiths and establishing harmonious relationships in the process repudiates misconceptions. Isolated, intolerant acts should not be allowed to blemish the strength of that gentle spirit on display.
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* Mark Scheel is a writer based in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His most recent book, A Backward View, was the recipient of the J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).