One year ago, Chattanooga was traumatized by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez. After shooting at a recruiting center, he drove to a U.S. Navy Reserve Center and opened fire again. Before he was killed by police in a gunfight, four marines and a navy sailor were killed. The FBI determined that the shootings were inspired by terrorist propaganda. Chattanooga responded with memorials across the area and an interfaith service that was memorable, inclusive, and high-profile in a city with little interfaith infrastructure.
Once again, Mayor Andy Berke spoke to a crowd of diverse faiths. “How does this happen in a world of prayer, in a community invested in belief in a higher power?”
Berke, whose Jewish family came to Chattanooga two generations ago to escape religious persecution, encouraged the crowd to use their faith to build bridges. “We must continue to put our faith in God. One of the most inspiring moments of my life was to be at Olivet Baptist Church last year and see Christians, Jews, and Muslims together. Today is another step in the healing process. We have to continue to seek higher truths together. We rely on each other going forward, not the same, but unified.”
While Chattanooga has more churches than any city in America, it is becoming increasingly diverse. The city has grown exponentially in the last decade as industries and international companies relocate to the area. The economy has grown and education has been enriched. However, there have also been challenges and cultural conflicts, and some go deeper than the July 16 shooting.
A neighboring mosque was recently vandalized and burned. The mosque’s leader spoke on behalf of the Muslim community. Despite the hardship, his community raised $20,000 for the victims of the shooting, as did the Chattanooga mosque. Raised in Jerusalem in a Muslim home in a Jewish neighborhood, and attending a Catholic school, he explained what could be the anthem for interfaith work. “We are commanded to compete in doing good in our communities. Violence is a betrayal of all our faith traditions.”
The Muslim speaker explained the basics of mastering religious diversity. “Sharing our stories is a basic strategy for building bridges. We explore the others’ faith traditions and our own. Yet, we must go beyond dialogue to lead against the hate that divides us. Latino, Black, White, Jews and Christians helped rebuild our mosque. The intentionality of coming together relates to the biblical verse of kindness to the stranger among us.”
Interfaith services following tragedies like the one in Chattanooga are increasingly common place in the American landscape. These memorial services were held after the shootings in Charleston’s church and Orlando’s gay nightclub, of Dallas’ police officers and Tuscon’s Gabrielle Giffords. They provide a platform for pastors, civic leaders, and elected officials to decry what has happened and to urge us to use our faith to heal ourselves and our communities.
The speeches are earnest and heartfelt, but the real work is often beyond the photo op, out of the public eye. The keynote speaker, a former US ambassador to the Middle East, highlighted how respect and understanding the sacred texts of others can build bridges where threats, angry e-mails, and lists of wrongs fail. The faithful must reach out consistently and persistently to the Other.
Yes, they should learn about the others’ religious community so that assumptions and stereotypes fade. Stories and dialogue, reading and sharing are key. However, they must not only learn about each other, but make the contact personal. Go beyond the internet and extend a social invitation, give a helping hand, do business together, and stay in touch with family news. Our isolation from each other can be a killer, and people of faith can, and should, lead the way to communities that Harmonize Not Homogenize their religious pluralism.