By Igor Studenkov | Bugle Staff
The deadly shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub June 12 cast a heavy shadow over an interfaith panel that met at Morton Grove’s Muslim Education Center two days later.
A moment of silence in memory of the victims was held before the conversation began. The center has been hosting the panel for the past four years as part of its regular interfaith outreach efforts. This year’s panel was planned months in advance, and it was supposed to focus on how different religions view social justice. And while social justice was still a major topic, the panelists also emphasized how their faiths denounce murder.
The topic of the panel is different every year, but it always deals with some principle of faith. The panelists come from Morton Grove and other nearby towns. This year, the participants were Rabbi Samuel Gordon of Wilmette’s Sukkat Shalom congregation; Pastor Elizabeth Jones of Morton Grove’s St. Luke’s Christian Community Church; Inamuel Haq, an Islamic educator; Gaurav Singh, a Sikh civil rights educator and public speaker; and Shayda Safapour, a Baha’i Faith representative at the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.
This year’s panel was planned long before the Orlando shooting. In the wake of the event, Sarwar Nasir, president of the Muslim Community Center of Chicago – the education center’s parent organization – issued a statement condemning the incident.
“MCC condemns the killings and express condolences to victims’ families,” he wrote. “As Muslims, we believe that this kind of hatred, terror and killing is completely contrary to the teachings of Islam and is explicitly condemned. It is basic right of every human being to live free from violence, harassment or intimidation.”
The statement also noted that the center was increasing security. During the panel, two security officers were stationed by the main building entrance.
In her opening remarks, moderator Donelle Bergeson – a former Christian who converted to Islam – addressed the tragedy right off the bat.
“In light of the recent tragic events, [social justice] is indeed a topic in all of our hearts,” she said. “As a community, we are all horrified and saddened by the deaths of 49 innocent people. It could have been our friends. It could have been our family.”
Bergeson noted that Quran Verse 5:32 condemns the killing of innocent people.
Gordon said the tragedy makes events like this all the more important.
“The ability to come together and fight against discrimination, especially after Orlando, is so important,” he said.
Gordon added that his faith requires Jews to emulate God in their daily lives – and, caring for others is a big part of that.
“We are to be holy as God is holy by understanding that our neighbor is also a child of God,” he said. “Sharing divine breath with each other, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves – only through that we can be holy.”
The rabbi also said the Jewish experience of being Egyptian slaves allows them to be empathetic to other people who were similarly opressed.
“[The Torah] never says ‘you were a slave in Egypt, therefore hate the Egyptian,’” he said.
Jones shared the story of Jesus, saying that as a citizen of a country occupied by a foreign power, Jesus knew what it was like to be oppressed and his care for outcasts reflected that.
“Rabbi Jesus knew what it’s like to be oppressed,” she said. “He went out of his way to approach the tax collectors, loose women, prostitutes and lepers. In Mathew 25, he urged his followers to do the same thing.”
Jones added that a person can’t be a Christian unless they love their fellow human beings.
“Jesus made his greatest command into a two-part command – love God, love others,” she said. “These are two parts of the same coin.”
Haq said faith can’t coexist with injustice and oppression, and caring for fellow human beings is an integral part of Islam.
“The idea of faith cannot be separated from human concerns and our responsibility to human beings,” he said. “We don’t find the presence of God in some extreme rituals – we find the presence of God in love and mercy.”
Haq also noted that Zakat – the idea that, so long as Muslims have money to spare, they must give a portion of their income to help the less fortunate members of their community – is one of his faith’s five pillars.
Safapour began her speech by saying that in spite of the recent events, her faith gives her reasons to hope.
“Looking at the world today, we are amazed at how little progress we made in the field of unity and social justice,” she said. “I hope to give you reasons why Baha’i are still optimistic about the future.”
As Safapour noted, the Baha’i faith teaches that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism all came from the same divine source, with its holy figures teaching whatever was appropriate for that particular time and place. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith, brought the final revelation – that all religions must unite to bring peace and harmony.
Just as faith evolved over time, Safapour said human understanding of justice should evolve, as well.
“At some point in history, justice was rendered by someone with power over life and death,” she said. “[It was] eye for an eye. We can agree that this sort of justice is unacceptable in the 21st century.”
Safapour said a more just society would inevitably emerge through religious unity.
“Social changes, and social justice in our modern time will come from our increased spiritual unity,” she said.
Singh said one of the articles of his faith is standing up for those who need help. The fact that some requirements all baptized Sikhs must follow – such as wearing turbans – makes them stand out, but it also symbolizes what they stand for.
“The only way for me to identify with someone is not to be afraid to stand out,” Singh said.
Sjngh also said that Sikhs believe that every person is part of a greater whole, which encourages open-mindedness.
“A lot of what we ascribe to each other is the one in many, many forms,” he said.
The annual interfaith panel always takes place during Ramadan – the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims believe that this is the month when prophet Muhammad received the divine revelations that would make up the Quran. Throughout the month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. After the sun sets, they break their fast, pray and then get together for a post-fasting meal called Iftar.
Because Muslim religious observances are based on the lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, Ramandan is celebrated during a different stretch of time every year.
Each year, the Muslim Education Center holds its interfaith panels during the evening before sunset, and everybody attending is invited to watch the evening prayer and partake in the Iftar.