As an Episcopal school chaplain I had the privilege of encountering many Muslim students,
both in the classroom and as participants in school chapels. I will never forget the day a young woman all of seventeen years of age came rushing into my religion class, obviously very upset, and cried out, “When will people ever stop calling all Muslims terrorists”?
The year was 1997, four years before 9/11 at St Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, Tennessee. For this student, and many like her who were of faith groups other than Christianity, St. Mary’s was a safe place, for they knew their religious identity would not only be respected, but cherished by her peers and teachers. This student felt the freedom to express what was even then a level of intolerance that she experienced growing in the society around her.
Yesterday, I attended a gathering in Balboa Park organized by the League of Women Voters and the Islamic Center of San Diego to stand in solidarity with Muslim women who, when wearing hijab (head covering) have been insulted verbally, bullied in school and generally recipients of prejudicial treatment.
A group of Episcopalians, women and men, laity and clergy, including Bishop Mathes, joined with 300 or so other supporters in the park at the corner of Laurel St. and 6th Avenue on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to hear from Muslim women some of what they have experienced in San Diego as a result of wearing hijab and being visible adherents of their faith.
These Muslim women, sometimes only 15 years old, reported that they were the recipients of such painful rejection and scorn on a daily basis. Whether these women are American citizens, or whether they are immigrants or refugees, the wearing of hijab has become a symbol that often engenders intolerance and hatred the likes of which are unimaginable to those of us whose religious practices are not so visible.
As I stood there yesterday, hearing the voices of these women and children, remembering the wonderful Muslim students and their families who had entrusted their children to the two Episcopal schools where I served as chaplain, I felt a deep sense of obligation to continue do whatever I can to guard the freedom of all people in our country to be able to practice whatever religion they choose, and for Muslim women in particular, to feel safe to wear the covering that some choose as a sign of their religious commitment.
I am not naive to the level of fear, nor blind to the heinous acts of terrorism which could potentially take from us a feeling of safety as we go about our daily lives. However, I am sure that what was asked of us yesterday, simply to stand with, and to be in solidarity with, those whose religion or race is different than our own, is the most potent defense we have against a world where hatred and intolerance will only lead to more violence. It was both humbling and inspiring to stand in solidarity with all who were present and all who believe and work toward creating such a society. Is that not, after all, the Beloved Community of which Martin Luther King dreamed?
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