Maryam Is­lamic Cen­ter’s in­ter­faith out­reach leader helps or­ga­nize projects with area churches and syn­a­gogues

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BELIEF - By David J. Se­gal

WHEN her hus­band’s job moved them from At­lanta to Texas four years ago, Amina Ishaq faced a ques­tion fa­mil­iar to long­time res­i­dents of the state: Which is bet­ter — Hous­ton or Dal­las?

They chose Hous­ton, she said, in part be­cause of the di­ver­sity here. Ishaq had grown up in a small town in Florida, in one of five Mus­lim fam­i­lies in a pre­dom­i­nantly Bap­tist com­mu­nity. Her hus­band took a job here in the oil and gas in­dus­try as a soft­ware en­gi­neer. When they moved to Sugar Land, it felt like a dif­fer­ent world, with more di­ver­sity than any­where she had lived be­fore.

Ishaq is a leader on the in­ter­faith out­reach team at Maryam Is­lamic Cen­ter in Sugar Land. She helps or­ga­nize ac­tiv­i­ties ev­ery month in part­ner­ship with churches and syn­a­gogues.

Last spring, when Con­gre­ga­tion Brith Shalom of Bel­laire in­vited the Maryam Is­lamic Cen­ter to part­ner with the syn­a­gogue for an in­ter­faith day of ser­vice, it was an easy de­ci­sion. “We jumped on it,” Ishaq said. The first lo­cal Mitz­vah/Mercy/Sadaqah Day, which also in­cluded St. Theresa Me­mo­rial Park Catholic Church, was held Dec. 3.

A day of city­wide ser­vice projects, often called Mitz­vah Day (from the He­brew for “com­mand­ment”), has be­come com­mon­place at many Amer­i­can syn­a­gogues. But only a hand­ful of Mitz­vah Days across the coun­try have been or­ga­nized as in­ter­faith part­ner­ships.

“In­ter­faith Mitz­vah Day is an ex­ten­sion of the di­a­logue we’ve been hav­ing and the re­la­tion­ship we’ve been build­ing across re­li­gious bound­aries,” said Brith Shalom’s Rabbi Ranon Teller. For sev­eral years al­ready, Brith Shalom had part­nered with St. Theresa for Mitz­vah/Mercy Day.

Pam Mat­ula has been in­volved with the event for two years as a mem­ber of St. Theresa. Mat­ula said the op­por­tu­nity to find com­mon ground among con­gre­ga­tions drew her to vol­un­teer with the project.

Mat­ula said the in­ter­faith day of ser­vice pro­vides a way to live core com­mit­ments of her Catholic faith — works of mercy in­clud­ing vis­it­ing the sick, feed­ing the hun­gry and shel­ter­ing the home­less.

At Brith Shalom on Sun­day, Mat­ula sat with her Jewish friend Elise Shep­pard, whom she met through their con­gre­ga­tion’s in­ter­faith pro­grams. Shep­pard said one of the bless­ings of in­ter­faith work is get­ting to know peo­ple at other con­gre­ga­tions, sup­port­ing each other’s fam­i­lies and be­com­ing friends.

Mat­ula and Shep­pard were co­or­di­nat­ing vol­un­teers to­gether, help­ing with check-in and di­rect­ing vol­un­teers to their ser­vice projects through­out the city. In ad­di­tion to a blood drive at Brith Shalom, there were more than a dozen other projects, in­clud­ing: so­cial­iz­ing with res­i­dents at Seven Acres Jewish Se­nior Care, re­build­ing fam­i­lies’ homes that flooded dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, pack­ing and de­liv­er­ing meals with In­ter­faith Min­istries Meals and Wheels and Amaanah Refugee Re­set­tle­ment Cen­ter, car­ing for an­i­mals and na­ture at K-9 An­gels and Na­ture Discovery Cen­ter, and de­liv­er­ing cards and gifts to vet­er­ans at Mid­town Ter­race Veteran Hous­ing.

Shep­pard said she feels pas­sion­ately about in­ter­faith out­reach, hav­ing spent three years as Brith Shalom’s point per­son. Brith Shalom’s Can­tor Mark Levine, who over­sees Mitz­vah Day, asked Shep­pard last year to chair this year’s event, in part be­cause he wanted to in­clude the Maryam Is­lamic Cen­ter.

Shep­pard said it was easy to say yes be­cause she al­ready knew their in­ter­faith part­ners. They had vis­ited each other’s mosque, church and syn­a­gogue, joined to­gether in prayer and learn­ing, and wel­comed each other into their homes.

This year the event was re­named Mitz­vah/Mercy/Sadaqah Day, adding the Ara­bic word for “char­ity” to mark Mus­lim par­tic­i­pa­tion. It was a nat­u­ral fit for Maryam Is­lamic Cen­ter, Ishaq said, be­cause the mem­bers per­form in­ter­faith and vol­un­teer ac­tiv­i­ties through­out the year. They open their doors to neigh­bors, in part to dis­pel mis­con­cep­tions about Is­lam.

“But we have to go be­yond that,” Ishaq said. “This was so im­por­tant be­cause I wanted to go be­yond tours and learn­ing. Now it’s time to make a com­mu­nity. The three Abra­hamic faiths all teach ser­vice. I want my kids to un­der­stand that.”

On Sun­day, Ishaq took her daugh­ters to Mid­town Ter­race to de­liver thank-you cards to vet­er­ans and share a meal and raf­fle. Her daugh­ters got to hear sto­ries about vet­er­ans’ ser­vice in Afghanista­n and their life back home. At least 20 vol­un­teers of Mus­lim, Chris­tian and Jewish faith par­tic­i­pated.

Across town, vol­un­teers had made food pack­ages for 100 refugee fam­i­lies and de­liv­ered them to apart­ment com­plexes where many refugees live. Maryam Is­lamic Cen­ter per­forms this ser­vice ev­ery week, and it was happy to wel­come a dozen Chris­tian and Jewish vol­un­teers to join.

An­other reg­u­lar project that Maryam Is­lamic Cen­ter opened up to the broader com­mu­nity on Mitz­vah/Mercy/Sadaqah Day was its part­ner­ship with Amaanah Refugee Re­set­tle­ment Cen­ter. This week it was a home-trans­for­ma­tion project for a sin­gle refugee mother and her chil­dren. While a case­worker took the fam­ily to lunch — so they would be sur­prised later — a team of vol­un­teers cleaned, painted and re­paired the house. An­other team brought in new fur­ni­ture and ap­pli­ances.

The case­worker brought the fam­ily back to the home for the big re­veal.

“It is al­ways re­ally emo­tional,” Ishaq said, when the fam­ily sees their beau­ti­ful new home for the first time.

At a clos­ing din­ner hosted at Brith Shalom for the vol­un­teers, Shep­pard shared her thoughts on the value of in­ter­faith re­la­tion­ships.

“Tol­er­ance is an ugly word,” she said. “It con­notes putting up with some­thing dis­taste­ful to you. We should be say­ing, ‘Let’s build com­mu­nity.’ That means you’re in­vest­ing your­self in other peo­ple, and you’re build­ing some­thing to­gether. That’s what this coun­try needs to be talk­ing about.”

Patrick Mi­ral, a pas­toral as­so­ciate at St. Theresa, said this kind of in­ter­faith part­ner­ship should be nor­mal, though sadly it’s not.

“In light of the fear and ha­tred that we see in the world to­day, it is so im­por­tant for us to see we are all broth­ers and sis­ters, all from the same God,” Mi­ral said. “There is no bet­ter way to work to­gether than to serve oth­ers, side by side. Per­haps through that, we can all grow closer to God, as we grow closer to one an­other.”

All three con­gre­ga­tions re­main com­mit­ted to on­go­ing in­ter­faith work and ser­vice to the com­mu­nity. They hope their ex­am­ple can in­spire oth­ers as well, es­pe­cially since Hous­ton is rec­og­nized as the most di­verse city in Amer­ica.

“Ev­ery­one sticks to what they feel com­fort­able with, with their own con­gre­ga­tions,” Ishaq said. “We have to move out of that. We have to go be friends, to be neigh­bors, to see that all faiths have the core be­lief of giv­ing back to com­mu­nity. Es­pe­cially in this po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, we have to be that change.”

Annie Mulligan

Huriye Ercetin and fel­low vol­un­teers paint the fence sur­round­ing Bel­laire’s Na­ture Dis­cov­ery Cen­ter dur­ing an in­ter­faith com­mu­nity ser­vice project.

Annie Mulligan

Karen Aptekar, left, chats with Huriye Ercetin on the newly re­named Mitzvah/ Mercy/ Sadaqah Day, Dec. 3. The projects take place each month.

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