To Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, the Baltimore Jewish Council, Repair the World and the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore held an interfaith event discussing the civil rights movements and ways to continue that legacy.
The group of about 40 participants gathered in stocking feet at the MCCCB, with those older sitting on chairs and the younger ones in the group opting to sit on the ground. Madeline Suggs of the BJC and Josh Sherman of Repair the World were two of the main organizers, with Imam Tariq Najee-Ullah, who is also involved in the Trialogue series of interfaith discussions, as facilitator.
“The Civil Rights [Movement] wasn’t just a speech in Washington where Martin Luther King spoke and everything was better,” Najee-Ullah said in introducing the event.
There were about twice as many Jewish participants as Muslim (and at least one woman who was Unitarian). Because the group was relatively large for a discussion, it proceeded with Najee-Ullah calling on those who raised their hands to comment.
For about an hour-and-a-half, those at the event seemed to center the discussion on a couple main themes: A desire for direct action and exposing younger generations to diversity to combat societal prejudices.
Sol Goldstein, a World War II veteran in his 90s who helped liberate concentration camps, said while he appreciates attempts at interfaith gatherings, he would like to see more tangible, direct results. This spurred a short, respectful debate about the value of “parties,” with no specific resolution, but a general consensus at the value of befriending people outside your usual circle — of a different religion, race or class.
Bilal Ali, a community liaison for the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, added to what Goldstein had said with the idea that the country needs to “tear down the walls of fear.” There are parallels between the histories of Muslim African-Americans and Jews, he said.
“If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going,” he added.
Though no one mentioned newly elected President Donald Trump’s name, it was clear he was on many people’s minds, with references to inauguration and “the new administration.” His presence, for those who referenced it, marked a catalyst for their desire to be active in resisting tides of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Many attendees had organizations and initiatives they already worked with and used the space to advocate for those issues and encourage others to get involved. At the end of the session, it was decided that a list should be complied of those who attended, along with their affiliations — both religiously and organizationally — so others could reach out.
“I really hope parts of these conversations made you uncomfortable,” Sherman said, citing “productive discomfort” as a way to make people examine their own beliefs and biases.
Najee-Ullah felt the evening was a success. The current political climate has spurred a
lot of people to becoming involved and he felt interfaith dialogues and events could take advantage of that momentum.
“I think we have the opportunity to move things forward here in a way we haven’t in a long time,” he said.
Gabriel Pickus was an attendee and participant. He founded Baltimore Wisdom Project, which works with disadvantaged students, and said he came because he wanted to ensure he is always standing on the right side of history. During the event, he challenged his fellow Jews to take a hard look at their own community.
“I think one of the hardest things to do is tell your own community they are standing on the wrong side of history,” he said.
Another attendee, Michael Thompkins, a Jewish man of color, said he is interested in issues of social justice, both in his professional and personal life. He works with college students on topics like these and is always happy to see events where people can drop some of their labels and communicate.
“For me, it’s a really empowering feeling, a really helpful feeling,” he said.