MLK Day celebration focuses on the power to change a community

Cedar Rapids church honoring local imam at annual event

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Hassan Selim calls himself an immigrant and a Muslim.

He says both can represent a challenge for anyone trying to integrate and start a new life in a new community.

When he moved to Cedar Rapids in 2012, the native of Egypt, said he strove to put his stamp on the community and unite various religious groups.

On Monday, during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Selim, imam at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, is to be honored for his work in doing just that. He’ll be given the 2017 Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris “Who is my Neighbor” Award, which recognizes Linn County residents who show exemplary care and compassion, seek justice and act from a religious faith base in making the community a better place.

Selim, who also serves as vice president of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, is quick to give the credit to the people of Cedar Rapids.

“I would love to give the award to the entire Cedar Rapids community,” he said. “I could be doing the same work in other communities, and I’m sure not all the others would be reacting to it in the same way Cedar Rapids did.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration gets underway with a workshop for all ages titled, “Speak Up: Exploring Diversity and Unity Through Spoken Word & Poetry” from 3 to 5 p.m. Performance artist Akwi Nji, founder and director of The Hook, leads the workshop, which is to be followed by a meal at 5 p.m. and the celebration and award presentation at 6:30 p.m.

All events take place at St. Paul’s, 1340 Third Ave. SE.

“I was a little overwhelmed and humbled,” said Selim in reacting to being named this year’s award recipient. “Their main reason was the work that I do with the Inter-Religious Council and trying to create some sort of understanding and help the Muslim community integrate.”

Over the past year, Selim helped to organize a vigil for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and a Sept. 11 event where the Islamic Center partnered with St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church. The Islamic Center also hosted the Inter-Religious Council’s Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in 30 years.

Organizers of Monday’s celebration say the theme of the event is based on a community call to action from King’s quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

During Nji’s workshop, participants will have a chance to write poetry about how they feel as an individual of a community and what they can do to right injustices they may have seen. Nji later is to offer reflections during the celebration.

When preparing her speech, Nji said she was reminded of a speech she delivered after President Barack Obama won the 2008 election.

“I find it very interesting how I feel now rather than in 2008 after he had just won,” she said. “My focus is ... about the citizen as a primary component in building community. I think it’s an opportunity for people to connect in a meaningful way around an important conversation about not just race, but also about wage equality, about what it means to be supportive of one another in a country where people feel more and more divided.”

She said while for many MLK Day means a day off work, it’s not a day to “clean the house.”

“It’s a day to clean the community a little bit,” she said.

Both Nji and Selim said they understand there are Cedar Rapids residents content on interacting with community members who already are friends or members of the same family. But Selim said he wants to challenge all residents to realize the power they have to change themselves and bring the community together.

“Coming together in this way has helped people relax, get to know people they didn’t, know that their city is safe and welcoming, listening to other people’s past and views,” Selim said. “They will be surprised that we have so much in common. The things that divide us are very few.

“At the end of the day, we have the same concerns and hopes and dreams for the future.”

IF YOU GO

What: St. Paul’s Methodist Church 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration

When: 3 to 5 p.m. — Performance artist Akwi Nji, founder and director of The Hook, leads a workshop for all ages titled, “Speak Up: Exploring Diversity and Unity Through Spoken Word & Poetry.” 5 p.m. — Meal and fellowship in the Wesley Center. 6:30 p.m. — Annual celebration with music from area choirs, reflections from Nji and recognition of Hassan Selim, Imam of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids and vice president of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County as the 2017 Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris “Who is my Neighbor” Award winner.

Where: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1340 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids.

Cost: Freewill donations accepted.

Info and registration: (319) 363-2058; stpaulsumc.org

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com

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