CEDAR RAPIDS — The way Hassan Selim sees it, we are living in a time where people of all faiths must focus on building bridges and forging friendships.
That hasn’t been an easy task since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says Selim, imam at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids.
But there are significant signs of progress.
In fact, that progress is to be on full display this weekend as members from the Islamic Center work and pray side by side with members of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church.
The two congregations are joining forces Saturday for a morning of service at Waypoint’s Madge Phillips Center Shelter, 318 Fifth St. SE, where volunteers plan to paint, clean bathrooms and the kitchen and donate personal hygiene products.
At 7 p.m. Sunday, they’ll gather again, along with leaders of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, to host an interfaith prayer service at St. Stephen’s, 610 31st St. SE. During the service, they’ll remember the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11 and share prayers.
The event is open to the public.
“People can be of different backgrounds, different religions, but among the things that both Islam and Christianity have in common is that we care about those who can’t care for themselves,” said Ritva Williams, pastor at St. Stephen’s. “There’s no reason we can’t work together to make a difference.”
The idea to join forces for a community service project and prayer service actually began in December 2015 when St. Stephen’s member Norman Barnes wrote a letter to the editor in The Gazette, saying he believes anti-Muslim comments and generalizations have no place in America.
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“I remember thinking, ‘I’m so proud of this member,’ ” Williams said. “This congregation was very clear: ‘We have got to let our Muslim neighbors know that we’re going to stand with them.’ We are in a very historic moment. We’re hearing an awful lot about not allowing Muslims to come here or deporting people.
“From where I sit, that’s simply inappropriate.”
During the second Sunday in September each year, St. Stephen’s members perform a service project of some kind. Since this Sunday happens to be the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Williams said her congregation wanted to do something special.
She thought back to the spring when Selim came to speak to St. Stephen’s members and the youth groups from the church and Islamic Center got together for a meeting.
The desire for interfaith interaction had been born and this weekend’s service project continues the commitment.
“One of the things that became very (apparent) ... was that our Muslim neighbors are just as committed to doing good work in the community as we are,” Williams said.
‘So much pain’
Selim said he understands how the 9/11 attacks created fear and anger in Americans of all backgrounds and still is painful 15 years later. He said it’s painful for people of his faith, too, because it marked a turning point for Muslims across the world.
“We were looked at more as the source of all the evil, unfortunately, because of the actions of just a handful,” he said. “People started to fear certain people because of the way they looked. I would say at least a portion of this Islamophobia can be traced to (the Sept. 11 attacks).”
He said members at the Islamic Center, including teenagers who have lived in Cedar Rapids their entire lives, have had to deal with the impact of Islamophobia — people telling them to go back to where they came from, making negative remarks about their traditional Muslim head coverings called hijabs and even perpetuating a belief that Muslims celebrate 9/11 because of what happened in 2001.
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“There’s so much pain associated with it. To think someone thinks we celebrate is just terrible,” Selim said.
He has extra worries this year because Eid al-Adha, a holiday commemmorating the story of Abraham, falls this year on Monday, Sept. 12. He hopes the widely-celebrated Muslim holiday will not be misconstrued as a celebration of the 9/11 tragedy.
Both Williams and Selim say the weekend’s events should serve as a call to action, not only in Cedar Rapids but across America.
“To come to the point where everybody has an understanding of what Islam is, when everyone is comfortable seeing a Muslim man or woman praying on the sidewalk, that to me is too far of a dream,” Selim said. “For now, we really need to focus more on ... interfaith, building bridges, making friends. That’s what we need to focus on.”
It starts by working and praying together and growing an understanding of the differences and commonalities we all share.
“For people to reach out to us, it means people have come across any fears or Islamophobic ideas. It just means people have progressed so much. There’s an element of trust, of looking at us as just equal partners in this community. I hope this will set a pattern in the future.
“It just shows that religion can be a force of good, of creating and helping, not just destruction. Not setting people apart, bringing people together.”
If you go
What: Interfaith Prayer Service
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, 610 31st St. SE, Cedar Rapids
Details: An interfaith service hosted by St. Stephen’s, the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids and the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County. The public is welcome to attend.