Written by Connie Larkman
The interfaith community in Austin, Texas has created a sacred bond against anti-Muslim backlash that began before the holy month of Ramadan and will continue long after. Twenty faith communities, a synagogue and several denominations of churches including almost every one of the UCC congregations in the Austin area, are participating in The Banner Project — a visible witness, a public proclamation that states 'We Stand With Our Muslim Neighbors.'
"This is a long-term-project to build an ongoing relationship, not just a show of solidarity during Ramadan," said the Rev. Tom VandeStadt, pastor of the Congregational Church of Austin, UCC. "Rhetoric against Muslims, especially in Texas is getting worse, and we expect it to continue during this election cycle. It's about finding ways to really stand together and work together, and speak in a common voice for mutual respect, and peace."
The Austin faith community came together around the campaign earlier this year, when human rights activist Bonnie Tamres-Moore contacted the pastors of several local churches to ask if they would work with her to launch a project in which churches would hang banners in solidarity with Muslims.
"Anti-Muslim bigotry is not going to go away," said Tamres-Moore, director of The Banner Project. "It really matters to stand up for what is right, and what is true to faith."
A community task force of key organizers, which included VandeStadt, talked first to their Muslim counterparts to make sure the campaign would be helpful. The group then focused on the University of Texas district of Austin to get as many of the churches in that area to hang the banners, and then to move outward to get churches and synagogues throughout Austin to join the movement.
The first banner went up April 2 at the Congregational Church of Austin, UCC when the mosque in the neighborhood, Nueces St. Mosque, was holding an open house. The Shayk and and a number of Muslims from the mosque attended the banner hanging event, as did Christians from a number of the other churches in the neighborhood.
"We are standing with our Muslim neighbors to counter the lies with truth, and to face the fear, hatred, and violence with a tough and determined love," said VandeStadt. "We are standing with our Muslim neighbors—not just hanging banners—but deepening our relationships with them, and sharing a commitment with them to promote understanding and respect, justice and peace."
Since then, additional banners have been going up at several other Christian churches in the neighborhood, and the different faith organizations are coming together in community. Christian ministers have been invited to Friday prayers to speak to Muslim students, and the Christian congregations on the University of Texas, Austin campus have designated their churches as safe havens for Muslim students to pray, study, hang out, eat lunch or whatever. They are sharing that message on the mosque's group Facebook page, which is popular with the students who are members of the mosque.
The relationship deepened on June 8, when members of the Congregational Church, the University Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, and the University Baptist church enjoyed an Iftar at the invitation of the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest, a local Muslim organization dedicated to ecumenical dialogue. The invitation was a direct result of the banner project.
"When the day of the Iftar arrived, many of the Muslims coming into the church building saw our big banner out on the front railing of the church which reads 'Honor God-Say No to Anti-Muslim Bigotry,'"said the Rev. Chuck Kutz-Marks, pastor of University Christian Church. "Many of the Muslims arriving expressed their thankfulness for that message. The Muslim community provided the food for the gathering that evening and many of us Christians learned more about Turkish Muslim culture and foods. We discovered all sorts of important similarities and through a wonderful presentation by one of their members, we Christians left that evening with a much richer understanding of Ramadan."
On June 13, members of the interfaith group gathered to support each other in light of the Orlando shooting.
"When we begin to 'other' any group of people, find them less worthy, less human, we are willing to act in ways that are morally reprehensible," said Tamres-Moore. "I often think of one my favorite quotes by Martin Luther King, 'we must speak with all humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.' This quote means so much to me because it reminds me to have humility, to realize I don’t know everything, but to remember I still have the moral responsibility to speak."
Most important, how do Muslims in the neighborhood view the banners?
"From what I've heard, it has been an overwhelmingly positive and uplifting message for them,"said the Rev.John Elford, pastor of University United Methodist Church. "One young Muslim woman told me that she walked to class right by our church and another church that display the banners and especially in a time when there is such hate and vitriol in the news about Muslims, it was so moving for her and her friends to see that there are communities of people that stand with them."
"We have held a wedding and two funerals here at the church since our Banner Project sign went up and we have been pleased by the supportive comments of non-church members seeing that there are Christian congregations that are openhearted and open-minded," Kutz-Marks said. "The Banner Project is just the most recent of the many ministry developments shared among our university area congregations. It feels great to have the mutual support of other pastors and congregations when our own voice can sound like such a minority perspective."