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By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.
This memorial speech was delivered at the New Vision United Methodist Church in Millbrae on Sunday, May 19th, 2019 as part of a funeral service for Margaret Jones, founder of URI Peninsula Circle from 2001-2013.
I’m deeply honored to be here to celebrate the life of Margaret Jones. I personally owe her a huge debt of gratitude, since it was her inspiration and work that led me to take my first steps in interfaith engagement, which has become a central passion of my life and work, as it was for hers.
I didn’t fully realize this until Roger asked me to speak here today that my relationship with Margaret and her work was also my first encounter with interfaith activism, which now makes up about 40% of the work we do at Islamic Networks Group, the national organization I run.
We first met in an interfaith context—Margaret, with her husband Malcolm, founded the Peninsula Circle of the United Religions Initiative, or URI as it’s known. URI is a world-wide organization that brings people of different faiths together, and it’s one of the leading organizations in the interfaith movement today.
Before there were any active interfaith councils in the Bay Area, Margaret’s work with URI was really the only local interfaith council of her time, where she brought people of different faiths together to share and communicate across what people at the time saw as insurmountable lines of difference, especially right after 9/11.
She, a Christian, drew me, as a Muslim, into the interfaith circle, as she did representatives of other religions. And given that it was right after 9/11, I think it took a lot of courage to make sure that Muslims were represented. So if ever I missed a meeting, I could be sure of getting a phone call from her strongly urging me to attend the next one. Her concern was always an expression of her warm determination to make sure that everyone had a place at the table.
And for many of us in the interfaith circle she started, it was really our first time to encounter people of other faiths up close and personal. Margaret’s greatest concern was for us to see each other as human beings first and foremost, and I can’t tell you how important that was for me personally and for my community after 9/11.
Margaret was also dedicated to URI’s vision and the circle she had created. She was always prepared with agendas for our meetings and made sure that everyone felt safe and free to speak and join in the conversations that had a different theme each time we met. She did this with the same genuineness and authenticity that she brought to everything she did.
I think one of the reasons that our URI Circle succeeded as much as it did was that it met at her home that was so infused with her spirit of hospitality, openness, inclusion and constant learning. But above all, I learned from, and found deep joy in, Margaret’s personal character. She and her husband could easily have retired somewhere in Hawaii or Florida at their age, but instead she kept on organizing people for the common good, which was truly inspiring.
I learned a lot from her about how to bring people of diverse faiths, cultures, and communities together, and how to be welcoming to all, which now characterizes the work we do in my organization.
And I think this is where her greatest legacy lies in the community: the fact that she started the first authentic and inclusive interfaith effort in the San Francisco Bay area and sustained it for more than a decade. The whole Bay area community is indebted to her for that. For it’s out of such efforts as hers that I am now doing interfaith work, as are others who were part of the original circle she started, so that all of us are helping our nation move toward mutual understanding, respect, and peace.
When other Muslims finally replaced me in the URI Circle she had started, Margaret and I continued our long relationship as friends on social media.
Her passion continued to inspire me there also. For her, concern for her fellow human beings, and above all for the poor, the marginalized, the persecuted, was a natural outgrowth of her spirit.
And here’s where her other legacy lies in the community, even if it was brief. She wasn’t afraid to speak out publicly against injustices by our own government. This is really important. Because when I do so as a brown, non-Christian person, whose religion is very much maligned in this country, many people just write it off as complaint.
But when a white Christian does it, it’s viewed as legitimate critique that demands that people listen. And she was very outspoken on Facebook, often times defending me in my critiques of controversial issues concerning, for example, reckless or misguided American foreign and domestic policies. Margaret never held back and never shied away from giving it to the other guy, so to speak, in a heated debate. I loved that about her. She was a morally courageous person who spoke up. She wasn’t a bystander.
And I think it should serve as an example for other white Christians living in our time under this Administration and the current Supreme Court. You love this nation and what it stands for? You call yourself a patriot? Then don’t be a bystander.
I will dearly miss Margaret’s spirit, energy, warmth and passion, but I know that when a person is as full of life as she was, that life doesn’t simply dissipate. Their life continues through their influence on others. And her work has certainly shown me that, whatever the obstacles, inclusion, pluralism, and peace will have the final word.
Blessings and peace be upon you, Margaret, and may we continue to be inspired by you as we pursue our journey to peace together. As a Muslim, I believe that life doesn’t end when we die, but that it continues in the hereafter where all the good people will be reunited. May we all be part of that heavenly gathering with Margaret in God’s divine garden.