Washington interfaith groups’ activities that involved Muslims have come a long way since 1980 when I started my current job as a full-time foreign correspondent for major Arabic newspapers and magazines in the Middle East.
That was before the establishment of the American Muslim Council (1990), Georgetown University Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (1993) and the Council of American Muslim Relations (1994). The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington had just been established. I was the only Muslim in a series of gatherings that I covered at the Washington National Cathedral, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Islamic Center and Adas Israel Congregation.
The gatherings were formal, cautious and very politically correct. Many times I was politely asked: “Your name is Mohammad, are you a Muslim?”
Recently, I attended an interfaith gathering which was politically direct, informal and unreserved. Courageously, it merged faith and politics. And was held in place that was a far cry from the above places: Busboys and Poets, at the intersection of 14th and V St, NW.
A first-time visitor, my thought was: “This place is funky.” It is a casual combination of a restaurant, a bookstore, a bar, and a theater; the furniture wasn’t fancy; the music was loud and the place was almost full; there was a man playing a guitar and a woman sitting on the floor with a laptop and a glass of wine.
On the walls, there were posters, press-clippings, drawings and pictures of leaders like Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. A poster declared: “If you want world peace, fight for justice.”
Busboys and Poets was called by owner Andy Shallal a “progressive restaurant” and has become a local haven for writers, thinkers and performers from America’s progressive movements.
The occasion was the establishment of a Washington branch for the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP), a project by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of “Tikkun,” a California-based progressive Jewish magazine.
An emcee, Andra Baylus, a Jewish co-founder of the DC Interfaith Peace Initiative, promised an evening of inspiring progressive voices, socially conscious music and, of course, interfaith dialogue.
The Invocation were words from Howard Thurman, a pioneer African American spiritual progressive, and was read by two women: Louisa L. Davis, a white Interfaith minister and founder of Greater Washington Allies in Reconciliation, an interfaith anti-racism group, and Zarinah Shakir, an African American Muslim producer and host of a local TV program, Prospectives of Interfaith.
Part of the Invocation:”In the conflicts between human being and human being, between group and group, between nation and nation, the loneliness of the seeker for community is sometimes unendurable.”
Tacoma Park singer and composer Jesse Palidofsky started his songs by words attributed to a German pastor, Martin Niemoller, about the inactivity of his fellow countrymen intellectuals following the rise of Hitler: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
In between songs, music and poems, there were statements of kindness, ethical behavior, ecological sensitivity, non-violence and peace from, among others:
James Lee, NSP’s Washington branch coordinator (Lerner talked by a video); Rabbi Gilah Langner, the Jewish Chaplain at Georgetown Hospital, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, Director of Community Outreach for Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK; Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ; and the first Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn).
During the last 30 years, Washington faith-based activities have come a long way: from gatherings of traditional believers to gatherings of believers and non-believers; from medieval interpretations of religious texts to current implementation and community activism; from talk to action; and from “Holier than thou” to “Thou art holy,” to borrow Tikkun and NSP conviction that God is inside all of us.