In direct response to last December’s attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., which left 14 dead and 21 injured, Howard County faith leaders and People Acting Together in Howard, a broad-based community action group, held several interfaith dialogues as a way to fight against anti-Muslim sentiment.
“After the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, PATH began having conversations with members of the [local Muslim community] who were feeling uncomfortable and like they were being watched and targeted,” said Jake Cohen, lead organizer at PATH.
Started in 2004, PATH is affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the nation’s first and largest community organizing network that brings clergy and lay leaders together in Howard County to tackle issues that affect people in their congregations.
There are 12 member organizations listed on its website including Beth Shalom Congregation, the Maryum Islamic Center and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, all of which have hosted dialogues that attracted 100 to 200 participants on average.
The first gathering was at the Maryum Islamic Center, and Father Gerard Bowen said it gave him a warm feeling to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with people of different faiths and come together for the expressed purpose of supporting one another.
“I have a real fear that it’s a simple matter for the country to gravitate toward fascism and call it American.” — Father Gerard Bowen, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church
Many of Bowen’s congregants attended the dialogues, and one person said to him, “You know Father, there was a day when we’d have to confess this.” Having grown up during the era of McCarthyism, Bowen is aware of how important it is to not let history to repeat itself.
“I have a real fear that it’s a simple matter for the country to gravitate toward fascism and call it American,” said Bowen. “The other side of that is there are people saying, ‘This is not who we are.’ There is a struggle for the definition of what it means to be American.’”
Hassan Elkharbibi, who does community outreach for MIC, helped to organize the dialogues and attended alongside the center’s spiritual leader, Imam Mahmoud Abdel-Hady.
“We realized everybody showed interest in following up [after the first dialogue] and that people didn’t want to just talk about politics, they wanted to know each other,” said Elkharbibi.
“I have met some wonderful people with different backgrounds, faiths and ideologies and am able to speak with them as friends, brothers and sisters,” said Alan Zeman, president of Beth Shalom Congregation. “[These meetings] allow us to see past superficial differences and to realize we are all human,”
Recently, Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes dropped in on an interfaith dialogue held in Howard County, where he was exposed to some of the community’s concerns. In an interview afterward with the JT, Sarbanes emphasized the best way to counter extremism and the isolation of minorities is to “run toward them” rather than run away.
“I have to give a lot of credit to leaders in the Jewish community who have clearly perceived and identified that the kind of rhetoric which [Donald Trump] is using against Muslims, immigrants [and others] can turn on a dime and go after other communities,” said Sarbanes. “Some expression of solidarity in the face of that venomous language is important.”
Elkharbibi regrets the terrible situation that had to occur for the dialogues to begin but is hopeful the sessions will continue to gain momentum.
“I don’t want this [issue] to go to sleep until something happens again” said Elkharbibi. “I really hope other counties will follow the steps of what we are doing in Howard County.”