Houston Chronicle Sunday
SERVICE BY ALL, FOR ALL
Maryam Islamic Center’s interfaith outreach leader helps organize projects with area churches and synagogues
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.”