People tend to fear those we do not know. We prefer familiarity over the unknown. If we lack access to networks other than our own, we perceive people like ourselves as positive and tend to disapprove of “the other”. Exposure to people of other faiths in particular is rare for most Americans. A 2019 study by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found that one out of five Americans seldom or never encounter people who don’t share their religion and 77 percent said the country is divided over religion.
This past year’s pandemic and social isolation only made this worse. Consequently, hate crimes and systemic racism were more prevalent than ever.
Faced with these challenges, what can we do to bridge this gap between different groups in America and address prejudices of race, ethnicities, gender, and religion? What can each of us do to bring different faiths together and celebrate the diversity of opinions, beliefs, and experiences? What can we do to help create a community where people have the opportunity to safely challenge each other to break ingrained stereotypes, to learn from each other, and to make an impact together? The answer comes with a simple concept of ‘gathering not othering’ under one roof.
This space already exists, and it is the Abrahamic House, a multifaith incubator for social change. Hadar Cohen, Ala’ Khan, Maya Mansour, and Jonathan Simcosky were the selected fellows for this initiative in 2020, in which they kept their day jobs and lived rent-free while organizing and hosting public interfaith events and programs. An important part of the Abrahamic House experience is the chance for fellows to bond, share their respective holidays and religious practices, and ultimately become more effective allies for each other.
One of the most powerful programs took place in December when fellows held a public conversation about allyship that reflected many of the private and difficult conversations they had prior. They talked about what they learned about these different forms of hatred and how to show up fully for each other. One of the fellows shared the following powerful remarks during the event: “I’ve learned so much…about how anti-Semitism impacts everyone…I learned about how the Jewish community has been used as a buffer between those in power and other marginalized or oppressed groups so they become the face that can be hated instead of the true oppressors. That’s been a really strong point of learning for me and helps me be able to address anti-Semitism in my community. When it comes up, I’m able to speak more deeply about the ways I see that impacting myself and my Jewish allies.”
The Abrahamic House has launched a new location in Washington DC and is looking for four fellows from four faiths to join the 2021 Washington DC fellowship. These four individuals from ages 21-35 will live together for a year building interfaith programming and events in their free time. As they commit to bringing people together, fostering community building, challenging stereotypes, and impacting their community, the rent is subsidized up to 75%, and all programming costs are covered.
The mind behind the initiative is Mohammed Al Samawi: a Yemeni young man who fled the civil war in his home country and came to the United States as a refugee almost six years ago. His story, which is told in his memoir book The Fox Hunt (HarperCollins Publishers) and is about to become a movie, produced by Marc Platt, Steven Spielberg and written by Josh Singer (Spotlight), echoes back to a famous theatrical line: “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”.
“In Yemen, I was engaged in interfaith dialogue through the Internet and social media”, says Mohammed. Surrounded by fighting militias, Mohammed hid in his apartment with everything he had left: few food supplies and a weak Internet connection. He reached out to his network on social media to save his life. His call for help was answered by four strangers he barely knew from his interfaith work but who nevertheless saved his life. Despite not knowing anything about Yemen, nor having any experience in diplomacy and war refugees they managed to rescue Mohammed out of the war-torn country in a matter of 13 days”.
Now that Mohammed is safe in America, he is dedicating his life to crafting new intentional spiritual communities that lead to transformative relationships, from ignorance and stereotypes to solidarity and understanding. To apply and know more about Abrahamic House Fellowship in Washington, DC 2021-2022. visit www.abrahamichouse.org
Diar Kaussler, M.Litt, LLM is the Program Director of the Abrahamic House with nearly 20 years of experience in non-profit initiatives. Diar is committed to civic work that bridges divisions, celebrates humankind’s cultural, international, and religious diversity, and creates new and deep relationships between communities.