Area Interfaith Group Born Out of Tragedy and Charity

A donation of food from a Frankfort mosque and a Tinley church's outreach of compassion after 9/11 created the SouthWest Interfaith Team that strives to build bridges between religious communities.

The SouthWest Interfaith Team is a nonprofit group in the south suburbs of Chicago that was born through an act of giving.

Rev. Jim Young, then of the , met with Khalid Mozaffar and Tariq Khan, of Frankfort's , in November 2002 after the AIA donated to the church a large collection from a food drive. Young, who’d worked at Ground Zero, said he was looking to do something more with Christian-Muslim relations and this meeting with Mozaffar and Khan planted the seeds for that.

Around the same time, the Rev. Terrence Baeder of reached out to the AIA in a show of support after hearing about threats against area Muslims in the wake of 9/11. This confluence of encounters was the impetus for the creation of SWIFT in 2003.

The group brings together Christians, Muslims and Jews from the area to educate each other on their respective religions as well as to work on community projects. Joining them are Julia Ziev, of , and Jan Shaulis, of .

How It All Began

Rev. Jim Young: The first thing that happened is I was at the United Methodist Church of Tinley Park, and we had a food pantry there. We had a window that you can make (food donation) drops after hours. One morning I went down there, and there was a big pile of food on the floor with a note attached to it that it was from the mosque in Frankfort. I forget exactly what the note said, but (the members) wanted to keep doing it and meet.

Khalid Mozaffar: We were doing a food drive with our Sunday school here, and I needed a place to donate the food, so I looked up the Yellow Pages for any food pantry in the area, and one came up—Tinley Park Food Pantry. So I said, 'Let me give them a try.' I called them up, and the answering machine came on and said, 'This is the Tinley Park Methodist Church.' ... My thought process at the time was, "Oh, I'm going to say this is from the mosque, and this is a church. They're never going to call back. This is not going to work." But I did leave a message that this is from the mosque, and we have some food to donate.

The next day, Rev. Jim Young did call, and we made a connection, and I told him about the food drive. He was very eager, very happy to receive those donations. ... Later on, Rev. Jim Young called me up and said, "I'd like to come over to your school and thank everybody there," because it came from the Sunday school project.

From there, we expressed the desire to have a participation in some type of interfaith group. And then the Tinley Park Ministerial Association, of which Rev. Baeder was a part of ... said, "We've been thinking about reaching out our hand in friendship to any mosque around here, making sure we weren't being harassed"—because this is right after Sept. 11—in any way or our freedom to worship wasn't hindered in any way. And then Rev. Jim Young came over, met with our board. ... And that's where we started talking about an interfaith group. It took a few months for it to come together.

Young: Not too long before that, I had been a chaplain at Ground Zero in November (2001), and after that, I had really wanted to do something more. So when your food came in, that was the answer.

Mozaffar: Did you know about this mosque at the time?

Young: I don't think I did.

Rev. Terrence Baeder: I think one of the major concerns we had was that there was this incredible tension that was brewing out there essentially with people of different faiths. I remember some of the conversations that Jim and I had, the importance for us to say, "Look at this wonderful act of charity that just occurred from a Muslim group, basically to a Christian organization. This is what faith is all about." 

Jan Shaulis: A lot of people at that time were so afraid of their neighbors who were Muslim and afraid of people they saw at the store. There was so much fear, that by bringing people together you get them talking, and you realize that we all have the same similarities. We have children at school and we work at the same place and we believe in the same God. We wanted to build bridges.

Tariq Khan: We were getting phone calls that were kind of scary. We had some broken windows and all that. We used this time to prove that we were just as American and just as sad about what happened on 9/11. We just didn't want to be lumped into that group that was doing all these terrible things. ... So we were waiting for this opportunity, and when these folks came forward, we basically jumped on it. We felt that this was our way of assimilating ourselves into the community. And these people were really very helpful. Each one of them accepted us with open arms and kind of offered their support.

Julia Ziev: Frankly, I had always had Christian friends and, of course, Jewish friends—never had any Muslim friends. And this, to me personally, was wonderful. It broadened me. 

Mozaffar: It is very easy if you just look at the news ... to get into a mode of despair, everything is just wrong, out of control. People are hating each other. We felt that we needed to take action. What action can we take to counter this. By establishing this interfaith group that gave us a means of doing our best, showing faith as a positive force in society as opposed to a negative force. ... None of us are abandoning our own principles of our own faith. We are still passionate about our own faith. But we're proving to everybody that we can still work together. Even though we might have some very different ideas about certain theological beliefs but that doesn't preclude us from working together. There's a lot we can do together.

Young: Sometimes as a pastor of a church you try to organize something and it feels like you're pulling teeth to get people to do anything. This was not at all like that. Everyone all along the way was just very eager to get involved with it. It's just wonderful to be part of something like that.

Finding Ways to Appeal to All People

Mozaffar: What we like to do at SWIFT is we have different formats. Dinner is one of them. Not everybody's the social kind. Not everybody likes to go to lectures. So we have multiple kinds of formats throughout the year, so that there's something for everybody. If your comfort level is doing community service projects, we have that. If you like doing family-oriented picnics, we have a picnic once a year.

Shaulis: We do service projects together ... where these people get togehter, and by working together, it gives them the opportunity to talk to each other and learn more about each other. It's built bridges. It's been amazing.

Mozaffar: That's what we try to do with SWIFT programs—a little bit for everybody so that nobody feels excluded. ... Everything is important. When we do a community service project ... what we think is just as important (as doing the project) is the ride over there. So we like to make sure we have one van, everyone's sitting in there together, and that gives us the opportunity to bond and talk about things that you normally wouldn't. They're not conversations about religion, per se. They could be about anything. But that's how you build friendships and relationships. 

Shaulis: When we do the dinners, we pick a theme, but we make it very important when we set the tables we try to put two Muslims, two Jews, two Protestants and two Catholics at each table. And we give them table starter questions on the theme, so they've got at least something to start talking about. And by having a good mix at the tables ...

Mozaffar: We try to have a good mix. (Laughs)

Shaulis: We try to have a good mix. (Laughs) Sometimes it doesn't work out quite as good—we're off balance by some—but we try to have a good mix. And that is the one event that people keep asking for more. They want more dinners, more dinners. At the end of the evening, we almost have to push the people out the door because they don't want to go home. They've developed friendships, they've exchanged e-mail addresses. It's just really amazing to see what happens at these dinners.

Khan: When you leave the table, you basically have, if not fast friends, you at least have people now on the same page. They leave with good feelings for each other.

Ziev: We've been doing these for so long now that when you go to the grocery store, you see people that you know were at one of the dinners, and they smile at you, and there's that connection now.

Shaulis: We have a rule that we can't talk politics, so we make sure that at all dinners we keep politics out of it. But yes, there are times when people disagree with your idea or my idea. Even amongst Protestants and Catholics, we have different beliefs about the same thing. It gives people the chance to really discuss why they believe that way, and we've never had it turn into an argument. People can agree to disagree.

Knowledge Is the Group's Best Tool

Shaulis: The educational value behind this has just been amazing. You have people coming together who knew very little about each other, and now they've dialogued. We have forums where we can learn about each other's beliefs. We have dinners where we can sit and talk.

But we've also been able to share. ... Like our confirmation kids go to the mosque, go to the Catholic church, go to the temple. It gives the kids a time to learn about each other, and find out what the different faiths believe.

Ziev: When we have our forum, we ask everybody to write a question out ... And what do we do? We go through them as all three, a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim.

Shaulis: We've learned to be respectful of each other's traditions. And we've also learned why people do different things. Which once you have knowledge then you're not afraid. It's the lack of knowledge that frightens people.

Mozaffar: The nice thing about SWIFT is that a lot of leaders, especially initially, were the actual clergy, the leadership of the churches, not just individuals who believe in interfaith work. ... That was such an important thing because they have an authority in their churches. They were reaching out to their congregations, and they were asking me to speak to their congregation on Islam, giving a one-hour, two-hour presentation. 

Shaulis: I know at our church we make a point of making a class called Islam 101, and now this year we're going to do Islam 102, too. Because there've been so many people who have come away from the dinners and things with more questions that we invite one of the Muslim men in, and he teaches for several weeks. And he doesn't hold anything back. They can ask anything. 

It's really amazing because when people get that taste, they want more information. And more information becomes more peace inside of them because they're losing that fear.

You begin to educate people to the fact that all three of these religions are Abrahamic religions and that we all believe in the same God. We may worship him in different ways, but it's the same God. And I think that becomes a big eye-opener to a lot of people, because I think they're under the belief that Muslims have a different God and that Jews have a different God.  

Mozaffar: One of the things we do is attend interfaith expos or programs like the Tinley Park Expo, which is open to the whole community. We like to get a table there for SWIFT, and the whole idea is even if people don't stop by our table to pick up any of the information pamphlets, even if they just walk by and see a Muslim, a Christian and a Jewish person there, standing and talking to each other, I think that speaks volumes. Here's someone who's thinking, "Hey, a Muslim and a Christian or a Jew and Muslim can't even be in the same room without arguing or fighting." (But) they can work together.

Celebrating Differences and Similarities

Baeder: One of the key elements to the whole prospect is the kind of respect that we always begin with that understanding. You may not agree with the other person and what they're saying, but you still need to respect them and what they're saying and to treat them as a brother or sister. That becomes the core. That's a part of the openness that is there. But it also allows real honesty that people can feel comfortable opening up in that atmosphere and to share what they honestly believe. And knowing that even if people don't agree with them, they'll respect what they have to say.

Khan: It was amazing how these wonderful people with their beautiful hearts came forward and just embraced us. "Don't worry. We are here to bring help. Tell us about you." And through some of these interactions have come true friendships and an understanding of each other that we're all the same. We pray to the same God. These issues can be talked about and we can learn from each other and bring some perspective to it.

Baeder: It's an amazing thing that happens to people, people who are strong in their faith. When they hear someone from a different faith community speak a portion of their scripture and it sounds almost identical to our scripture, people start hearing similarities. Suddenly, you realize the Koran is saying almost the same thing that our Christian scripture does or the Jewish scripture does. 

Khan: The most important part of this group is that people are willing to listen to each other. We can talk and we listen. We're getting to know other people and other people's faith in a way where you see a lot of common things between us.

Shaulis: Even when we have our board meetings, we share scripture together. And what's so often amazing is that one will read a portion of their scripture, their holy book, and the other will say, "Gee, we have that in ours." It may not be exact, but it's close. And we've learned that there are so many similarities.

Shaulis: I think looking back at the beginning of SWIFT, when we would have our first dinners, there was that tension at times in the room, and then when people began to talk to each other, it just melted away. Because people really began to understand we're so much alike. 

Rallying Around the Orland Park Mosque

Young: I think it was about a year after we started, and the issue came up about a mosque in Orland Park. There was quite a bit of anger and controversy about that, and I remember—I was not personally part of it—the mayor at that time and some of the village officials called on some of the leaders of our group to talk to them, and I think had our group not been there that would've been a much more difficult process. 

Shaulis: SWIFT went to all of the meetings and spoke on behalf of the mosque. ... I think some of it was when we went there (meetings about the mosque) and we'd hear people—especially Christian people—saying very un-Christian things about Muslims, it was being able to bring up our Christian values and what Christ had taught us to do and the fact that we all believe in the same God and that in America the right to worship is out there for everyone. It's not just for us Christians. Everyone has the right to worship.

Ziev: My car got egged because I went to those meetings.

Shaulis: When we were going to Orland to back the mosque, they had my picture in the paper and interviewed me, and I had a very angry neighbor come up to me who found out I was involved in this organization. And he was very vocal against Mulsims and how dare I do this. Don't I know that I'm jeopardizing my kids, etc., etc., by helping these terrorists.

We talked for the next several months. Every time we would see each other in the neighborhood, he would holler at me, and I would talk to him. My kids and his grandkids went to the same school so we were at the school grounds all the time, and there were quite a few Muslim kids in that school. And by the end of that school year, I saw him talking to Muslim parents, kindly talking to them. I saw him pat a Muslim man on the back as they walked away. He had gotten to the point where they weren't the terrorists anymore. They were just neighbors. To me that was worth everything, just seeing that one man change. 

Mozaffar: A lot of the points people were bringing up were, "We don't want a mosque in our backyard." "We don't want terrorism coming into our town." "They hate Christians." And when a group of Christian clergy stood up and fought for the right for Muslims to establish their own place of worship, that just crumbled their whole premise that they were saying that Muslims and Christians couldn't get along. Here were Christian clergy standing up for the right to have a mosque. So it just took away from their argument. They couldn't say that anymore.

All along this cooperation was evident. Muslims and Christians were standing together, showing that Muslims are just as American as everybody else. And that made a very powerful statement.

Baeder: When you look at the world around you, you keep hearing fear in people, and the fear is what leads to this animosity and conflict among folks. So that when you see the opposite, when you see people willing to sit down and listen and hear each other and care about each other and respect each other, it sets a whole different tone. I think in those meetings in Orland, that was a piece of it. That there was this kind of calm voice of reason that suddenly pervaded this tension-filled room, a room filled with fear. And I think understanding this whole thing of fear is just so crucial to understanding and presenting calm and peace.

Starting Them Out Young

Mozaffar: We do a lot of different kind of projects, and we go to St. Xavier (University's) interfaith expo every year because we like to reach out to that population, too—young people who will be going out, starting families. We find out it's what the families teach their little kids whether they'll be prejudiced or not. 

Shaulis: My grandkids went to school with a lot of Muslim kids. They were just kids. They weren't Muslim kids or Jewish kids. They were just kids, and they got along with everybody. But you could hear some of the parents in the background, making comments—negative comments. But as long as you're dealing with young kids, they seem to get along with everybody. It's when they get older that they begin to establish their prejudices. If you wait until a kid is too old, they'll begin to hear these prejudices from their parents and that will establish where they'll be setting their mind. 

Khan: It's important for us to reach out to the adults so that those children don't learn from the adults. So they have some different perspective about Muslims.

Shaulis: I keep thinking about the kids, what we can do to help the kids. That's something we try to keep focusing on. What types of activities could we do, especially with the teens. 

Knowing When SWIFT Was Worth It

Young: I think for me it was just the process of getting along with Khalid, getting the group organized in the first place. It was a lot of work, but at the same time, everything felt right. ... Just that whole beginning process was really amazing for me.

After being a chaplain at Ground Zero, I wanted to do something more in some kind of an interfaith way. I didn't know what that was going to be. And then when the food showed up and Khalid's note and getting together with them at the school and their board meeting, it just felt like this was what was meant to be, what I was supposed to be doing.

Shaulis: It was God working through you. You were the vessel, he was just working right through you.

Baeder: That was such a difficult time in our society, and the tensions between people were so intense that the simplicity of (how SWIFT) was designed is what made it work. And that was what was so exciting. To simply bring a group of folks together from diverse backgrounds and people who were living in that tension in the community, just sitting down to eat together and talking to each other, and suddenly becoming friends and seeing beyond all the craziness. 

Ziev: As it evolved, it just took me over. I was just very much feeling very, very responsible and also involved in what this SWIFT organization was all about. ... I wish I could get more involved in SWIFT. To use the old expression, I'm not going to be around forever, and I feel very strongly that (younger) people be more involved. We need more younger people than myself to be involved in SWIFT and to be involved in talking to other people, other than their Jewish friends and relatives. 

Mozaffar: One of our pastors from the United Methodist Church just passed away, ... and his wife asked me and Julia to speak at his memorial service. And to me that was like an amazing thing, at a United Methodist Church, a Muslim is being asked to speak, not just as a friend, but as a Muslim. To me, where I as a Muslim will be reciting from the Koran at a United Methodist Church, for me to be made welcome and comfortable to do that, I think that that's just a beautiful moment for me. 

Shaulis: I think the neat thing is how the board members have become friends.

Ziev: And not only friends, but we care for each other, too. I would say in our ways we're close to each other. We know each other. 

SWIFT will hold a speakers forum, Extremism and Violence in the Name of Religion: How Our Scriptures Deal With the Subject, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18, at . For more information, go to the group's website, e-mail at info@swiftinterfaith.org or call 708-717-3908.

This is one of a series of 9-11 portraits assembled by the Patch network for 9/11: The Decade After, a special report for Huffington Post. Find more photos on the Action America Facebook page.

Qasim Choudry September 09, 2011 at 01:12 PM
great topic


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