Event attracts Richmond-area residents eager to learn about Islam
By: Angela Lehman
Global Education Office
It wasn’t quite music, but the buzz of a dozen conversations during a recent event symbolized the social harmony that comes from breaking down barriers of misunderstanding.
“Uniting Humanity: Conversations with Our Muslim Neighbors,” an event organized by a team of Virginia Commonwealth University English Language Program faculty and International Student and Scholar Programs staff, attracted more than 100 people eager to talk, listen and learn.
The afternoon event began with a presentation about Islam by ELP instructor Rebecca McNerney. She also addressed common misconceptions about Islam that she encounters as a Muslim-American. Then, around tables in the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church of Richmond, Muslims and non-Muslims sat in groups of six to eight and began to talk.
“People were so willing to listen,” said Haneen Sabbagh from Saudi Arabia, a third-year student in the School of Business. “Every table I looked at, people were really into the conversations.” Sabbagh said that sometimes she didn’t know the answers to difficult questions, but she appreciated the fact people asked them.
Conversations and questions ranged from personal topics such as family celebrations to the meaning and use of Arabic words such as “Allahu akhbar,” to challenging − perhaps unanswerable − questions about the actions of violent extremists.
At one of the tables was Richmond resident Zulfi Khan, a member of the Islamic Center of Virginia. Khan says he has been working tirelessly to “clarify” Islam since 9/11. “The burden is on this generation and generations to come to believe that religions are for humans, not divisive tools for politicians,” he said. Khan said it makes him sad when leaders of all kinds use religion to define and dominate people.
McNerney agrees. “Events like these are investments in our collective future, as well as keys that open doors between the community and VCU,” she said.
Muslim participants included VCU students and faculty, a University of Richmond School of Law student and community members. The event was open to the public.
First Baptist Church has a long-standing commitment to support refugees and immigrants in the Richmond area, but this was the first time the church hosted an event like this. “We are trying to be a good neighbor to those in our community, no matter who they are or what they believe,” said Ralph Starling, minister of Christian invitation at First Baptist. “Good conversation and listening are important tools in helping us to better understand and care for others,” he said.
The Uniting Humanity series arose from a discussion among ELP faculty concerned about the spread of harmful generalizations regarding groups of people such as immigrants and foreign nationals studying in the U.S. “After President Trump’s first immigration order came out, some students expressed discomfort and uncertainty about their futures in the U.S.,” explained Audrey Short, ELP instructor and the event’s primary organizer. “It seemed like we could … build community while helping our students feel valued and welcomed.”
Steve Blanchard, minister of compassion at First Baptist, has a similar hope. “I felt the event said to all communities that despite our differences, we can coexist in peace and harmony,” he said.
The event organizers plan to host similar events in future semesters featuring other cultures or religions.
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