When Lauren Baer signed up for the Wilmette Institute’s course Islam for Deepening and Dialogue (faculty Susan Maneck, Necati Alkan, and Lil Abdo Osborn) she greeted her fellow learners by saying, “I am both excited and somewhat overwhelmed as I embark on this learning journey with all of you, as it has been a long time since I have been involved with any formal program of study. For the past twenty years, I have lived and raised my children (ages twelve and seventeen) in a small suburban town, North Kingstown, in southern Rhode Island where there is little racial or religious diversity in the population. I am hoping that participating in Islam for Deepening and Dialogue will serve as a launch pad from which I can find a way into the discourse of society and begin to have spiritual, or at least more meaningful, conversations with my co-workers, friends, and family members and especially with my husband Jim (with whom I am taking the course).” Little did she know how quickly her wishes would be granted.
Not long after Lauren and her husband enrolled in the course, Jim ran into an acquaintance, a retired teacher of religious education, at a coffee shop in Providence and shared some of his thoughts about taking the course. The friend went to his car and brought Jim a yard sign that read “To our Muslim neighbors: Blessed Ramadan” produced by the Rhode Island State Council of Churches
Then followed consultation between Lauren and Jim and between them and their children. Questions and observations were many: We don’t have any Muslim neighbors. Would we seem to making a point? What point? Would the sign or our house be vandalized? Would we be harmed? Would the press come? Is it the right thing to do? It is from our hearts, but would it be misunderstood? Could our family handle it?
Lauren, who is Bahá’í from a Jewish background, kept thinking about Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.” For her, the Jewish “spin” on the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) has the added rationale that love and protection comes from a place of empathy. Her desire to post the Blessed Ramadan sign came from a desire to welcome, to include, to be a well-wisher of all people and from a deep empathy of how painful it can be to be cast as a stranger.
And so Lauren and her family posted the Ramadan sign. Let her tell you what happened next.
“My learning in action in the course on Islam for Deepening and Dialogue began with the reception of our Blessed Ramadan sign at the onset of the course and with the consultations that our family had about the issues involved in putting the sign on our lawn. Jim and I were encouraged to do so by posts from participants and mentors in the course as a means of stimulating conversation and teaching. Once we ultimately decided to put the sign up—with the unfortunate timing of doing so on the eve before the Orlando shootings [June 12, 2016]—we received a few positive passing comments (not much more than ‘I like your sign’). We had the distinct sense that, far from wanting to engage in any kind of conversation, or even acknowledgment of this bold/provocative/unusual/unprecedented (for our neighborhood) initiative, our neighbors were actually avoiding us.
“We did, however, receive a letter from one neighbor who gave very negative and somewhat hostile feedback for supporting terrorists and who claimed that ‘others feel as I do.’ After receiving no response in our offer to meet with this neighbor and hear her concerns, I consulted with friends at a Nineteen Day Feast and with my family about what we should do, as we were concerned that perhaps neighbors viewed us as creating a threatening situation in which, as this individual stated, ‘we now feel on edge looking out our windows, watching to see who might be driving through that isn’t a familiar car several times that your sign has drawn curiosity to. We have children to keep safe and families that have lived here for years without any disruption, and we’d appreciate it if we could all go back to living in peace.’
“The action we took was to write a letter stating our intentions on posting the sign, which was in alignment with the Rhode Island State Council of Churches’ initiative for promoting an environment of witness and welcome to Muslim Rhode Islanders and consistent with our family’s long-standing efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural understanding and friendship). We distributed the letter to all fifty houses in our neighborhood. The letter included an invitation for everyone to come to a meeting we were hosting dedicated to the theme of peace and unity. Five people gave their regrets, saying that they were unable to attend this meeting (along the lines of ‘thank you, but I have other plans’). One neighbor emailed to say: ‘I support the State Council of Churches initiative, too.’ Only one couple, with whom we are friendly, actually attended the meeting.
“My learning from this experience is that the hostility toward and fear of Muslims—arising out of the general ignorance that many non-Muslim Americans have about Islam, and then exacerbated by acts of terrorism and hatred by those claiming to do so in the name of Islam, and then further fueled by hateful public rhetoric—has created a climate where it is very challenging, if not impossible, to initiate meaningful conversations about Islam.
“My husband, daughter, son, and I attended an iftar gathering [the meal served after sunset during Ramadan to break the day’s fast] at the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) masjid [mosque]. My daughter and I actually went twice. Then we received a notice that this masjid had been vandalized—windows were broken and a slur against Muhammad was spray painted on the side of the building. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches and the interfaith community responded quickly, organizing a vigil at the masjid for the following day. My daughter and I sent late-night texts expressing concern and support to a couple of the Muslim women with whom we had become acquainted and went to the vigil (along with a couple of other members of the Bahá’í community who live near the URI’s masjid). The vigil was very well attended, with inspiring and unifying addresses by Congressman Jim Langevin; the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island Peter Neronha; Reverand Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches; and David M. Dooley, the President of the University of Rhode Island.
“What I learned from attending the vigil at the masjid is the power of standing united against religious intolerance and how people of good will, regardless of background, seek and find unity when they have a shared goal. A repeated refrain from the vigil was that Roger Williams founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious tolerance and plurality (Newport, Rhode Island, has the country’s oldest synagogue) and that as people of faith stood united against threats to any house of worship (there was a similar vigil, several weeks earlier after a synagogue in Providence had been vandalized and spray painted with anti-Semitic slurs), we were realizing the vision of Roger Williams and upholding the right of all people to worship God according to their conscience. A short time later Jim and I attended a Friday sermon and prayer service at the masjid, and at the end of the meeting, the president of the masjid talked about the incredible ongoing support that the masjid continued to receive in the wake of this vandalism and how blessed he felt that the Muslims in this community are so loved. He felt that the acts of violence were actually a gift to the Muslim community.
“That Friday’s sermon was on the power of the tongue, the need to avoid backbiting and gossip and to only speak about what is helpful, to speak against violence and evil, and to praise Allah and spread His teachings. The content of this sermon and the language that the speaker used was very similar to the language used in the Bahá’í writings (that is, the importance of possessing a kindly tongue and the connection of the tongue to the heart, which belongs to God; the evils of backbiting; the need to bring oneself to account each day; the heart being like a mirror, and so on). I gained some deeper insight into the implications for using right speech through hearing this sermon.
“From my visits to the masjid, I learned that the Muslim women, youth, and children whom I met (I did not have much opportunity to interact with the men) were very welcoming and showed great hospitality, openness, and appreciation in having me visit their masjid. I spoke with women who had lived in different cultures (Bengal, Saudi Arabia, and Libya) and learned how their experiences of Ramadan differed from each other as well as the adjustments that needed to be made observing Ramadan on American soil.
“I tried to practice the insight gained from a reading in the course, Raffit Hasan’s article “The Basis for a Hindu-Muslim Dialogue and Steps in That Direction from a Muslim Perspective,” about interfaith dialogue with Muslims by focusing on asking about experiences of God and spirituality. I asked the women I met at the masjid about their experiences of fasting and how it was impacting their connection to God. When I mentioned that I was learning about the Qur’an, one woman enthusiastically opened a Qur’an and recommended which surihs I should read.
“I also asked a young woman if there were any formal practices or guidance for how Muslims should ‘bring themselves to account’ (which the sermon speaker said that each Muslim must do). At first she simply answered that this is to be done in one’s prayers. But as I continued to press her for an answer, she explained that on her birthday each year, she assesses how close she has come to meeting her goals of learning Hadith and memorizing the Qur’an. She also told me that within some chapters of the Qur’an, there are stories that are followed by an Islamic law and questions woven through the verses. For her, these questions are points on which to reflect and think about her own conduct. She suggested, as an example of what she was talking about, that I study Chapter 18 (The Cave), which she reads every Friday. I have put this on my ‘to-do’ list, as I hope to gain some insight into the process of how the Islamic tradition promotes this ‘bringing thyself to account each day,’ which Bahá’ís, too, are called upon to do.
“I had hoped to share something about the content of Islam for Deepening and Dialogue with at least one person each week, but most of the sharing I did was related to the cascade of events that followed my family’s posting of the Blessed Ramadan sign. Given the response from our neighborhood, I was happily surprised at the level of encouragement and support that I received from unexpected people when I did share our experiences. It seems that, perhaps because of the current overall negative anti-Muslim climate that is being created through the media and the internet, some non-Muslims who are open-minded and/or who even have Muslim friends and loved ones but are intimidated about speaking up. Sharing the experiences that I had gave other people an opening and permission to make their own voices heard.”