Why working for the Muslim community is the most Christlike aspect of my life

By Kate Chance, Interfaith Manager.

This opinion originally appeared at the Christian Citizen.

As a cradle Episcopalian, I was raised with a mentality that loving my neighbor and caring for others in my community should be the heart of my faith. Social justice has always been a core value of mine, and I’ve always been inspired by the radically inclusive love of Jesus, who constantly fought against social norms to love all men and women with the same grace and mercy, despite stereotypes and biases against individuals.

I’d believed my entire life that I was acting Christlike in this regard, with many of my weekends in high school spent feeding the homeless, rebuilding homes and getting to know those of other faiths — particularly Mormon and Jewish classmates — as well as fellow Episcopal youth who held the same values of love and acceptance with which I was raised.

It wasn’t until the Dove World Outreach Center nondenominational church bubbled up in Gainesville, Fla., that this view was challenged. Dove World Outreach was founded in the 1980s but didn’t enter the public eye until 2009, when it began placing large yard signs that claimed “Islam is of the Devil.” This blind hatred toward Muslims was at the core of the Dove World Outreach community. They even sold T-shirts, coffee mugs and books bearing the hateful statement. Children who belonged to Dove World Outreach wore “Islam is of the Devil” T-shirts to public school, until they were suspended and continued education within their own community.

This approach wasn’t loud enough for the group, which then made international news for threatening to burn 1,000 copies of the Quran in the middle of my community. I was constantly reminded of this hate group, as I had to drive past its signs on my way to my internship at a local church. How could someone of the same faith as my own carry such a hateful message and be so unaware of the humanity of other people? How could the notion of Jesus’ radical inclusive love be taken in such a radically different context?

Through this questioning, I began to confront my own prejudice toward the Muslim community. I was in fourth grade when the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers fell on 9/11, and I was raised in a world and a time where my understanding of “bad guys” was synonymous with a Middle Eastern man with a beard. I had little interaction with the Muslim community growing up and, looking back, see my own stereotypes and misconceptions toward practitioners of the faith.

Realizing my own hypocrisy, I started taking religion classes in college, continuing until I earned a master’s degree with concentrations in Islam and Hinduism. I eventually began spending time in the Muslim community. Every day that I spend getting to better know my Muslim neighbors, the more respect and love I find, and the more the stereotypes and misconceptions weaken. And the more I understand how Islamophobia and prejudice toward Muslim Americans impacts the lives of those around me, the more essential it becomes to my faith to take a stand to combat it.

Raised in the same environment as I, many Americans haven’t had the opportunity to challenge their notions of Islam through education or face-to-face engagement. I’m incredibly proud to work for a Muslim nonprofit organization that is dedicated to combatting Islamophobia through both of these means via an assortment of programs for classrooms, communities and the nation at large.

Islamic Networks Group (ING) runs an assortment of programs aimed at better informing Americans about Islam as well as encouraging interfaith dialogue. Most of the resources are free. ING maintains an Islamic Speakers Bureau of trained and certified speakers prepared to deliver education presentations on various topics related to Islam and Muslims. We offer cultural diversity training for law enforcement, education, health care, and business professionals on how to deal sensitively and appropriately with Muslims. INGYouth workshops and speaker training equip young Muslim Americans to speak about their faith, answer challenging questions and push back against bullying and harassment.

Know Your Neighbor: Multifaith Encounters, an ING-led coalition of approximately 90 faith-based and interfaith organizations across the country, offers inspiration, tools and resources for organizations and individuals, including youth, to create events that bring together Americans of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds for mutual encounter and learning. All organizations dedicated to getting to know others across difference are encouraged to join, and individuals are welcome to find more ways to participate.

I hope that these resources will inspire you to learn more about American Muslims, help combat your own misconceptions, answer any questions you may have about Islam, and encourage you to share this information with others. Only through questioning our own understanding can we can come to better know and care for others around us.