A boy touches his crying father during a protest by Pakistani and Moroccan migrants after Macedonia refused to admit refugees from those countries. Loving thy neighbor, though perhaps not easy, is at the root of many different faiths. CNS photo/Georgi Licovski, EPA

A boy touches his crying father during a protest by Pakistani and Moroccan migrants after Macedonia refused to admit refugees from those countries. Loving thy neighbor, though perhaps not easy, is at the root of many different faiths. CNS photo/Georgi Licovski, EPA

By Jennifer Mauro | Associate Editor

The faces are different, but the images are the same.

Tears for a small Syrian boy whose body washes ashore after a failed attempt to seek refuge from a country divided by war. Confusion as a truck ploughs into a crowd during Bastille Day festivities in Nice, France. Anger as a married couple takes part in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Fear as worshippers are targeted at a Quebec City mosque in Canada.

And through it all, these victims of civil war and extremist ideologies, these victims of different faiths and descents, are united in loss – loss of home, loss of security, loss of loved ones.

“Do not stand by idly when a human life is in danger,” Leviticus 19:16 reads, an Old Testament passage that Deacon Patrick Brannigan touched upon in his homily Feb. 12 in his parish of St. James, Pennington, as part of an overall message on welcoming the stranger.

Related coverage: Read Deacon Brannigan's homily in its entirety

Referencing the day’s First Reading on Sirach about keeping God’s Commandments, he reminded the congregation that the Law of Moses – the Torah – had 613 individual laws, Leviticus 19:16 being among them.

“When asked about the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ … And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” said Deacon Brannigan, who also serves as executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey.

Defending Diversity

Loving thy neighbor is something advocates for interreligious dialogue from Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to local Muslim and Christian faithful and academics admit is not easy, especially as violence driven by extremism plays out across multiple media outlets. But it is crucial, they say.

“The bond between Christians and Muslims is founded on the unbreakable strength of charity and justice,” Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, and Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president, said in a joint statement in January.

“The Church will not waiver in her defense of our sisters and brothers of all faiths who suffer at the hands of merciless persecutors,” they said.

But who exactly these “merciless persecutors” are is something that has divided the United States, in the past month especially. From protests in the streets to discussions on social media and across dinner tables, the Trump Administration’s recent immigration policies and travel ban preventing those of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States has shed light on the divisiveness of a nation.

“I think that in general, it is important to remember that despite the great diversity of Islamic traditions, we are most likely to only hear about the ones that get news coverage, which means the ones that are implicated in acts of violence or political upheaval,” said Emily Goshey, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Princeton University.

Imam Sohaib Sultan, Muslim Life coordinator and chaplain in Princeton University, pointed to the danger of stereotyping.

“I think that the problem of lumping people together is that we wouldn’t want that for ourselves,” he said. “Look beyond the media for alternative sources of information, and part of that is talking with a living, breathing human being with a set of beliefs and experiences different from your own.

“Refugees are more than likely not seeking to do harm, but running from it,” he added.

Recognizing exactly that, the USCCB in 2003 issued a pastoral letter urging comprehensive immigration reform that called for a reasonable path to citizenship that protects the integrity of families and “allows migrant works to enter and work in the United States legally and safely.”

That idea was restated again in 2013, not only when Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., joined the “Nuns on the Bus” campaign in speaking up for comprehensive immigration reform when the 28 religious sisters visited New Jersey, but also when the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey, including Bishop O’Connell, signed a letter on immigrant rights stating, “Now is a time to take action to end how we treat so many of our brothers and sisters as virtual nonpersons. Now is a time to welcome brothers and sisters as strangers no more.”

“We speak out because Jesus told us that we will be judged by how well we fulfill our responsibility to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, and to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35),” the New Jersey Bishops said.

That was a sentiment Deacon Brannigan preached on in his Feb. 12 homily. Discussing the Gospel message of the day taken from the Sermon on the Mount, he challenged the faithful to do more than avoid doing wrong and instead be instruments of peace.

“We should not think this call from Jesus is just a fair-weather suggestion to be a do-gooder. Jesus’ call demands a change of heart – it demands that we put God and neighbor at the core of who we are,” Deacon Brannigan said.

“Jesus did not say welcome the stranger only if he or she is the same ethnic or religious background that you are. Jesus said welcome those in need as if we were welcoming him, welcoming Jesus himself,” he said.

Oversimplified Media Accounts

One organization dedicated to those in need is Catholic Charities, which has been discussing the idea of having a speaker talk to its staff on Islamic culture to better understand the traditions of its clients. One speaker being considered is Goshey, who has been studying Islam for more than eight years and has spent time in several Muslim-majority countries including Egypt, Morocco, Tajikistan, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Goshey is of the Baha’i faith, which dates back to 19th century Persia, and her father’s family is Catholic.

She said it’s important to address some of the common stereotypes about Islam and Muslims and filter out facts from assumptions. 

“Having just a little bit of knowledge about Islam can be dangerous and misleading, especially if it comes from the wrong sources,” she said. “If we have heard a few things about Islam that put a bad taste in our mouths, that can stop us from being open to learning more.”

“As a scholar of Islam, I rarely ever see reasonable, nuanced or accurate discussions of Islam in the media – whether from liberal or conservative outlets,” she continued. “Media coverage offers one of two messages: either ‘Islam is violent and intolerant’ or ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ Both are vastly oversimplified. Neither statement helps us understand Muslims as people or tells us anything about Islamic history or textual tradition. If we want to educate ourselves about Islam, we have to seek out sources that offer valid facts.

“In an increasingly globalized world, we cannot afford to be ignorant of those around us,” she added. “As more and more Muslims live in our neighborhoods and go to school with our children, to know about them is to understand the world that we live in, or even the block we live on.” 

One of those neighborhoods is located in Mercer County, home to the Medina Community Clinic – a nonprofit founded by Muslims that provides specialty care to the uninsured. The clinic refers uninsured patients to its 25 participating doctors specializing in 15 different areas of care, allowing them to be seen by a doctor during regular office hours. In service for more than two years, 99 percent of its clients are non-Muslim and its board comprises those from many faiths including Christian, Jewish and Hindu.

The idea of the clinic evolved from wanting to help and be of service to other people, said Executive Director Arshe Ahmed, who is the wife of Imam Sultan.

“Our Muslim values drive us,” she said, citing specifically the desire “to be thankful and grateful for what you have and to share that with others. It’s about taking care of your neighbors. Islam, too, has traditions of taking care of the traveler and being hospitable to them.”

Pointing to other faiths, Imam Sultan stressed that Islam is a way of worshipping God and having a relationship with the divine, as well as living ethically and morally.

“Undoubtedly, there are similarities between Islam and Christianity. That’s why it’s fun to have interfaith dialogues. There are so many parallels to how they are similar,” he said. “All of these religions come from the same source, which is one God. We all carry the same prophetic legacy.”

The Virtue of Tolerance

Discussing religious similarities and differences may not always come naturally, and in fact, may even make people uncomfortable, but the key to interreligious dialogue is to approach it with humility.

“Having a conversation doesn’t mean you’re going to agree with the other party,” Ahmed said. “But to understand someone’s story, to ask about someone’s story is really important, too.”

Her husband agreed. “I don’t think we always have to move toward acceptance. Tolerance is a pretty good virtue,” he said.

“Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. And what we’re seeking is not consensus, but community,” he said.

Pastoral associate Nanci Bachman of St. David the King, Princeton Junction, knows firsthand that true interreligious dialogue doesn’t happen overnight. The parish has been working with The Religious Leaders of West Windsor for years in order to better their community. The collaboration includes representatives from the Jewish, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Muslim, Mormon and Baptist faiths, among others.

“We have found out more about each other’s faiths, how we can work together and what are our common goals in our community,” she said, stressing that collaboration aids in tackling community issues such as drug abuse and health care access.

To that degree, The Religious Leaders of West Windsor is co-sponsoring the “Celebrating Unity” community day April 29, in which the West Windsor police department, school district, recreational department and religious leaders will come together for food, games and information on their community to learn more about their diverse neighborhoods.

Bachman said she is hopeful that the community has seen the interreligious relationships that have been established over the years. After all, she said, it’s natural to have trepidation of faiths or cultures unlike one’s own.

“Once you get to know someone, they become part of your family of choice,” she said.

“It’s easy to love our own family, but loving your neighbor is a broad statement,” she added. “But that’s what I love about our Catholic faith. We’re encouraged to welcome the stranger.”

Preserving Democracy

As debate continues to surround the current administration’s policies regarding migrants and refugees, advocates of interreligious dialogue say society could use this climate to discern the issue both spiritually and intellectually.

“The idea of a refugee is interesting because it’s a theological type of term,” Ahmed said. “You seek refuge in God. We should seek this as an opportunity to help and become closer to God.”

Added Imam Sultan, “Interfaith dialogue makes people appreciate their own faith more and forces them to learn aspects about their own faith or traditions previously unknown to them.”

However, he also expressed concern over the consequences that can stem from the lack of dialogue, saying, “It’s no longer a luxury to get to know people who have a different culture and faith than your own. It’s an absolute necessity to save our democracy.

“The discourse in this country right now is not healthy; it’s not civil; it’s not tolerant. And when that happens, it’s a threat to democracy itself because democracy is based on civil communication and civil discourse,” he said.

Lenore Isleib is coordinator of the Social Justice Committee in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, a parish known for being actively involved in interfaith and interreligious talk. Last October, the committee sponsored an evening of open dialogue that drew together Catholic, Jewish and Muslim communities. Many of its members also attended an Interfaith Thanksgiving luncheon held in November in St. David the King Parish.

“Once you know somebody, it’s harder to fear them. It’s just human being to human being,” she said, adding that to watch or read the news, Islam is a religion of terror.

“Muslims are the most hurt by the extremists. The extremists have taken a beautiful religion and made it appear violent and dark, which it isn’t.”

Goshey agreed, saying the takeway is that one shouldn’t believe everything he/she hears about Islam.

“We should always be open to learning something new that challenges our current perspective,” she said.

A lesson that, for Catholics, comes straight from the top.

“I think our direction comes from our leader, Pope Francis, who’s involved in all efforts [of peace] throughout the world, so we’re taking our lead from him and our Bishop here in the Diocese,” Bachman said.