Pastors tell Muslims: We will 'stand with you'

Messages of support marked interfaith services in Washington and Boston, where 2,600 people showed up at a mosque Sunday – far more than organizers expected.

Josh Kenworthy/The Christian Science Monitor
Boston clergy, Mayor Martin Walsh (left, back row), and US Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) (second from left, back row) front the audience at the interfaith event, Out of Many, One, organized by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and hosted by the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center Dec. 11, 2016. The event was conceived as a healing response to the rise in hate crimes and hate speech in the wake of the divisive November election. It drew more than 2,600 people, beating organizer expectations of 1,000.

On Monday, Bob Roberts got on a plane to head to Washington. The evangelical pastor from Keller, Texas, had a message he wanted to send to the nation’s Muslims.

“I’m here today, to say as a Southern Baptist, I want you Muslims to know, I love you, I care about you, I support your right of religious freedom,” Mr. Roberts told those gathered at a mosque on Monday. “I will stand with you, and there are many of us.”

It’s a message that’s being delivered in cities like Boston, where 2,600 people poured into a mosque Sunday night for an interfaith service, and Nashville, Tenn., where residents created a chalk mural of support outside a mosque. And it’s being heard in Phoenix, where hundreds of residents – including the mayor – lined up to buy food from a Lebanese baker whose front windows were shattered multiple times by a vandal.

When a business owner showed up to donate new windows, the Arizona Republic reported, the bakery owner, Isam Saed, asked him who sent him. “The world,” Rick Pyle, owner of M&M Glass Co., replied.

​Individually, the actions are notes of grace. Taken together they speak to a broad determination by many Americans to make Muslims feel supported and welcome at a difficult moment.

“It’s critical for us to stand together in a time like this,” says Roberts, senior pastor at the 3,000-member NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, in a phone interview. “And it’s critical for Muslims to hear straight right up from an evangelical pastor that we do support them – and at the same time for us to challenge our own tribe. Sometimes it’s critical for us to be prophets to our tribe in terms of how we respond to Muslims.”

There continues to be a climate of anxiety and uncertainty. Over the past month, hate crimes and acts of vandalism have risen, and some in President-elect Donald Trump’s inner circle have rebooted talk of Muslim registries.

Messages of hope in chalk

After the Sunday gathering in Massachusetts, Anwar Kazmi, a member of the board of trustees at the Islamic Society of Boston, could only express how “overwhelmed” he has felt with the outpouring of support he’s seen for Muslim Americans.

“You saw what happened here with 2,600, maybe 3,000 people here tonight,” Mr. Kazmi said after the service, which was attended by US Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. “And exactly the same thing is happening on a smaller scale at just about every mosque in the country. Like I said, yes, there are unfortunate incidents of bigotry, but for every such incident, there are hundreds of acts of kindness.”

In Boston, these included a group of neighbors who, on the Friday after the election, brought flowers, fruit baskets, and hand-written letters of support – a counterpoint to the swastikas and letters threatening genocide sent to mosques around the country. Some took chalk and wrote messages of support on the sidewalks outside the Boston mosque.

“On the front of the mosque, with chalk, they had put big signs, ‘You are our neighbors,’ ‘We love you,’ ” Kazmi says. “The kindness is just overwhelming, I don’t have words to describe it.”

Event organizers, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, put Sunday's meeting together in about two weeks, responding to what they saw as an urgent need to address the “too many people feeling ignored, misunderstood, insulted or vilified,” in the wake of the 2016 federal election.

​In the deep blue city of Boston, that can include Trump supporters. Peter Brook, a conservative who spoke at the service at the request of his pastor, admitted afterward to being a bit apprehensive about his reception.

“My guess is that most of you didn’t vote for our president-elect, but you need to know that not every Trump supporter is a bigot,” said the Rev. Burns Stanfield, Mr. Brook’s pastor and senior minister of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Boston, to those gathered. “I know that because I have people in my own congregation whom I love, who voted for the man, and they are decent good people. People who like most of us want decent wages and an apartment they can afford, affordable health care.”

Brook, an odd job man and dog walker from Dorchester, spoke about attending his Wednesday Bible study the day after the election. “There were tears shed and there was this unsettling uncertainty about our future and where we were going,” says Brook, who says his parents taught him, “you can never give enough."

“I don’t have a wife and children, so without a family at home, my church family – I have a great and vested interest in my church family," he says. "My church family was hurting.”

Halal Texas barbecue

Roberts notes the fact that some 81 percent of Evangelicals supported Trump in November – a higher percentage for a GOP presidential candidate than in the previous three elections.

Yet even though research shows that Evangelicals – and in particular pastors – express the most prejudice against Muslims, he says, not all do. A number of his congregation’s younger and middle-aged voters, he says, appear to have voted for Clinton, while many among the older generation cast what he characterized as an unenthusiastic vote for Trump.

Three years ago, his evangelical congregation lost a number of members when it began to reach out to local mosques, assisting new immigrants to settle in and inviting them to worship together in interfaith services. In January, NorthWood will celebrate the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a service that will include two nearby mosques, as well as a halal Texas-style barbecue.

For his part, Hamzi believes it is also incumbent on Muslims to reach out to other Americans. “Muslims, we’re the new kids on the block, so to speak, and there are many people who don’t know us,” he says. “We can’t be in our own comfort zone, we need to go out and meet people.… I think another thing we really need to do is to go out and serve the community at large. Words only go so far…. Our neighbors have done right by showing up and showing support. I think it’s up to us now.”

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