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Interfaith event brings communities together to commemorate 9/11 attacks, organize for social change


PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Bhai Manpreet Singh & Team of Sikh Center of Oregon perform Sikh hymns by playing a harmonium and tabla  rum during  a 9/11 Interfaith event at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland.Fifteen years ago, Reverend Michael Ellick was working as a financial advisor in Manhattan when terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers.

Ellick, now the senior minister of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland, stood in the gruesome shadow of the attack, his eyes seared by image of the burning towers and falling bodies.

Three thousand miles west, 6-year-old Mariam Said woke up in Portland to the sound of her mother and father murmuring in fear at the sight of the attack being replayed on the television screen.

The screen was so close, so menacing that she didn’t realize the attacks were happening on the other side of the country.

“I remember being really scared,” recalls Said. “I thought the same people were going to attack our school as well.”

Said attended the Islamic School of the Muslim Educational Trust in Tigard. She would later come to fear that her school was going to be attacked by another group of people — those who were blaming the Muslim community at large for the 9/11 attacks.

On Sunday, leaders from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Sikh and other spiritual communities shared the stage during an interfaith event dedicated to honoring the victims of 9/11 while building bridges.

The event began as a partnership between the Muslim Educational Trust and the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Over a dozen faith communities gathered at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Portland for commemoration and a communal meal.

“The most radical thing we can do ... is make friends with one another,” said Ellick.

Faith leaders shared poetry, spiritual readings and hymns from their traditions that evoked mourning and unity through a common spirit.

Speakers honored the first responders, victims and families of 9/11, as well as those who have suffered in its aftermath as a result of wars abroad and prejudice in the United States.PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - The Rev. Lynne Smouse Lopez, pastor of Ainsworth United Church of Christ Portland, gets a show of hands of who have taken part in an event hosted by a differing faith tradition during a 9/11 Interfaith event at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland.

Being othered

Nadia Najim, a recent graduate of MET’s secondary school, was 3 years old when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Her family had moved from New York, where she was born, to Beaverton just two months earlier.

“I don’t remember it ... nobody really tells 3-year-olds what’s going on,” said Najim, who is getting ready start her freshman year at Oregon State University, where she’s planning on studying electrical engineering.

But she clearly remembers when she was 9 years old and someone yelled racial and religious epithets at her family through a car window.

“It’s really disconcerting to be treated as an ‘other’ when you associate yourself with being American your whole life,” said Najim.

For years, Najim didn’t understand the suspicious looks, the police protection at her school, the fact that her mother did not feel comfortable wearing her headscarf at the airport.

But that day, her mother sat down with and explained what happened on that September morning in 2001 and how it affected the Muslim-American community.

Five years ago, a woman came up to Najim while she was shopping and called her a terrorist. Said, who is now 21 and started wearing the hijab in college, remembers a similar confrontation. Last year, she was waiting for the bus when a man biked by and shouted, “F- Islam!”

Both Said and Najim remember the unspoken fear that something would happen to their school.

While the school has not faced credible threats, MET’s Director of Public Relations Rania Ayoub said negative online comments and anti-Muslim sentiment nationally sparked worries and prompted police protection.

“The Tigard police have been wonderful for us,” said Ayoub. “They’ve provided extra patrols to make us feel safe.”

Muslims aren’t the only people who have faced Islamophobia since 9/11.

Sikh men, who wear turbans and don beards as a part of their religious identity, have sometimes been the target of misplaced aggression and hate crimes. Ninety-nine percent of people who wear turbans in the United States are Sikhs, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Sikhism is a monotheistic faith from India, with millions of practitioners living around the world.

Harbaksh Mangat, president of the Beaverton-based Sikh Center of Oregon, shared a spiritual reading during the interfaith event. Later, he remembered and reflected upon what he felt when he turned on the television 15 years ago.

“It was just devastating ... what if that was your family, right?” said Mangat, who immigrated to the United States from India 25 years ago.

In the weeks and months that followed, he constantly dealt with a barrage of verbal harassment.

“They made comments like, ‘Hey Iraqi,’ or ‘Go away. Leave my country,’” recalls Mangat. “I said, ‘You don’t even know me. Let’s sit down and talk.’”

During that same time, Pawneet Sethi almost lost his life.

His boss, a fellow Sikh, warned him to be careful coming into work that morning. But Sethi never expected the moment that followed.

As he crossed a street in Southeast Portland, someone honked at him and deliberately tried to run him over. The car missed Sethi by a hair.

In response, Sethi turned toward outreach and organization to educate people about his faith and build bridges with other communities.

“I was reaching out, even if they gave me looks,” said Sethi. “Most people were simply inquisitive.”

Over the past decade, Sethi has been actively involved in interfaith initiatives all over the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area.

“For me, that turned most of the things around positively,” said Sethi.

Building the beloved community’

Wajdi Said, president of the Muslim Educational Trust, took the stage after embracing Reverend Hector Lopez, minister of Interfaith Ministries.

“This is my brother from another mother,” said Lopez.

Said and Lopez both reflected on the sense of community forged in the aftermath of the attacks.

“Despite the hateful rhetoric and racism, I am hopeful ... Hope lives in everyone of us,” said Said.

After 9/11, Lopez called a meeting of dozens of faith communities in the Portland area.

“One of the things that developed was an incredible sense of community between Muslims and Christians and Jews and people who aren’t part of faith groups. They came together in a way that astounded us,” he said.

But that initial spirit of solidarity eventually waned, explained Lopez.

“After a while, things just got back to normal. We don’t think it’s possible to go back to normal after an event like 9/11. We cannot take a break from that,” Lopez said.

“When Islamophobia is yelling out, it’s about coming together for our Muslim brothers and sisters,” said Reverend Lynne Smouse Lopez, pastor of the Ainsworth United Church of Christ.

Sunday’s event was the first in a series of three gatherings. Future events will focus on intentional community-building and social action.

“It’s about other injustices too. There are 9/11s happening everywhere,” said Hector Lopez.

Speakers and attendees alike reflected on what they characterized as the importance of forging friendships with people from other faith and philosophical perspectives.

“It’s about brushing up against other people and coming away changed,” said Lynne Lopez.