When COVID-19 Kept Us Apart, Interfaith Ties Brought Healing
February 7, 2022
“All are in the hospital,” according to a wisdom story from the Kurdish Sunni Islamic scholar Said Nursi (1877-1960). God watched over them with much love and wanted for them to be healed. They were not well enough to leave the hospital.
When we were told to stay home, March 8, 2020, and work online, I felt like that would last for about three weeks. As I oriented to online teaching, I got an invitation from my friend Rev. Ann Helmke with the City of San Antonio Department of Human Services’ Community Faith Based Initiative to gather on zoom Thursday morning, for just half an hour, learn of pressing needs and see if and how we could work together. The mayor wanted help. Getting on Zoom as I was sipping coffee wasn’t hard to do. That intersection with others and the 90-some Thursdays since then is transforming me. The weekly half hour gatherings have come to be called “@TheIntersection.”
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
Reflecting on Nursi’s symbolic story, since we have been trying to heal and get up, since we have been trying to get out of this pandemic and the confinement, is it my eyes, my ears, my mind, or my heart that still need healing?
I had seen the Catholic people of my parish, Mission Concepcion, sharing food with the needy. As I like being with those people at our church drinking coffee after the 10 am Eucharist, I have come to cherish the Lutheran and Jewish, Methodist and Muslim, Baptist and Buddhist, Presbyterian and Mandean, Mormon and Sikh friends I am with every Thursday.
My colleague wrote in our grant proposal in 2019 that the Christian students at our school need to learn from Hindus how to relate to refugees and immigrants. The grant proposal seemed to have gotten lost in pandemic panic.
On a Thursday morning I got to see the pictures from the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS). Thousands of Hindus who understand selfless service are generously helping in innumerable ways. My “family,” the Incarnate Word Sisters, is half Mexican, and I knew that most of the people in Texas not born in the United States are Mexican, but I had not seen that the next most numerous group is from India and that I could and should be learning from the Hindus and also Sikhs of India.
Over the years I have had delightful conversations with my Mormon colleagues, but in the pandemic, through @The Intersection, I heard that the Mormon community has excellent organizational structure. They quickly efficiently gather hundreds of blankets and other things for the needy.
When IFYC contacted me and said that they were offering “Faith in Vaccine” grants, they asked if Icould mobilize teachers and students to be in training on why vaccination is good and needed.
We connected more and more locally through the relationship building of @The Intersection. Eventually our students were in spaces of Black Baptists congregations and among so many other religious groups opening their doors to vaccine education and drives. Keeping in mind Nusi’s symbolic story — my ears were healing as I listened to a student speak of these interfaith efforts as some of the most meaningful work she had ever done.
Maybe our hearts and minds need to heal more. Our country is the most religiously diverse country in the history of world. All of us have the greatest opportunity ever to learn from each other. I am more deeply Catholic than I have ever been as I heal in this hospital with the huge multi-religious family of the Compassionate Holy One.
On a wave of optimism in November 2021, we — that is, some people united by the City Faith Based Liaison — believed that it was the time to extend @TheIntersection to an all day event on January 11, 2022, to have some deeper thinking, uniting in various configurations, and planning around pressings issues. I booked the large and beautiful Rosenberg Skyroom on our campus and we planned seating arrangements and food.
The pandemic rose to the highest rate positivity rate that we had ever had in our city, which pushed us back into confined spaces and a digital event. Yet about 200 people participated in this multireligious symposium. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the Department of Human Services’ Community Faith Based Initiative welcomed all.
Dr. Arturo Chavez, the University of Incarnate Word Associate Vice President of Mission and Ministry and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion had an opening conversation with the Rev. Ann Helmke of the city of San Antonion’s Faith Based Office. Suffering or violence can lead us to withdraw or become hard. Or we can let our hearts be softened, and we can become more compassionate and connected.
In San Antonio in the early 90’s there was an alarming rise in violence – killings were reported almost daily. Much of this was gang-related. The Rev. Helmke, a young Lutheran minister, and Arturo Chavez, a young community organizer, among other faith leaders across San Antonio, were involved in organizing a Gang Peace Summit, which gathered gang members, mediators, religious and lay people … and eventually 500 people were participating.
The following month saw the largest drop in crime in the city’s history. Within the year the number of murders dropped by a third—yes, one third less deaths. Gathering people and listening can change things.
Dr. Chavez said that Dr. Eboo Patel, president of the Interfaith Youth Core whom he worked with on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, points out that the U.S. has more religious diversity than any other country ever. Wisdom and compassion from all these different traditions can be shared for the good of all.
The day included ten sessions on the challenges in our city: housing, houselessness, domestic violence, hunger and food security, mental health, immigration and refugees, resourcing, and public safety. University graduate students and faculty assisted in many ways through out the day. Again and again, people gathered in break out rooms to talk about how we can respond. We continue to gather @TheIntersection each Thursday morning.
We gather that our minds and hearts can continue to heal.
Sister Martha Ann Kirk has been a professor of Religious Studies and of the Arts at the University of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio, Texas, teaching over 7,000 students, writing six books, and visiting over 30 countries often leading students. She has been the San Antonio Peace Laureate, the Texas Pax Christi Peacemaker of the Year, and recognized in various ways for building interfaith and intercultural bridges. She was included in the PBS Women, War, and Peace series as a “Teacher of Peace.” She promotes social justice and service learning within the University of the Incarnate Word Ettling Center for Civic Leadership and Sustainability. As a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio, she serves as a leader in their International Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Committee.