May 23, 2013

Interfaith Communities Respond To Disasters Together

By Esmeralda Valague, MA 

June is the beginning of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season but this year, we have already had several disasters including the one in Moore, Oklahoma on May 20 to remind us of how fragile our safety and security can be in an ever-changing world. Though every disaster is traumatic and causes a lot of pain and suffering, disasters also tend to bring out the best in humanity – particularly in drawing together diverse groups toward the common cause of relief and recovery. Go to any disaster scene yourself and ask people what their religion is and you will find that people are doing what needs doing and not caring about the differences.

On April 13, 2013 two explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, killing several and injuring over 100 others. Immediately, different faith communities (and, in the case of the Atheists Giving Aid Team who raised $27,000 for the victims, even the Atheist community…) rolled up their sleeves and opened their wallets to help. In our majority-Christian nation, the media covers the Salvation Army coming in to support the first responders, Catholic parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish holding a drive to give blood and the efforts of UMCOR – The United Methodist Committee on Relief. But did you know that shortly after the attack different Muslim groups (organized by the Islamic Society of North America also known as ISNA) created the Muslim Fund for Boston Victims, that the B’nai B’rith Disaster Relief Fund (a Jewish organization) began freeing monies for a large donation and the World Council of Sikhs gathered to determine how they could best assist too?
Terrorism could easily be the most divisive of disasters but it does not stop those who seek peace. Despite fearing vigilante retribution for the Boston Bombing themselves, the ISNA released this statement in support of unity (along the aforementioned donation): “Throughout the history of our country and our respective faiths, we have been challenged with trials that can tear both apart. Yet our mandate to unite in the midst of turmoil, and our need to stare down the eye of peril, is an imperative for survival and growth, for our collective defense and our social prosperity.” Conversely, when a Joplin Missouri Mosque was burned in a suspicious fire in 2012, St. Phillips Episcopal Church hosted the Muslim faithful for an Iftar dinner at their parish. Parishioners and Leaders from South Joplin Christian Church, United Hebrew Congregation, First Community Church and Peace Lutheran Church joined in for the traditional breaking of the fast.
During Hurricane Ike here in the Houston-area in 2008, many of us got to witness the interfaith collaboration first-hand. Relief and recovery meetings were held at the Islamic Center, Synagogues, and parishes of all kinds. Even I (who is part of the interfaith movement) assumed it would be considered taboo for a Catholic Mass to be said in a Mosque or for Mormons to hold services at a Baptist Church. Their houses of worship are “sacred ground” – I assumed…Would the adherents really allow a different kind of worship to take place there? But, during Ike and after reading many stories from disasters and even church-specific disasters (broken pipes, organic fires, etc.) the answer has been “yes and we are glad you are here.” This was a heart-warming prospect. There is a story that is common to the Jewish and Christian faith traditions that God was trying to teach the Jewish people a lesson that they just “were not getting,” so he kept sending them around a mountain for 40 years until they learned what they needed to learn. I wonder if perhaps God will continue to allow disasters to happen-- just to bring us together until we learn to serve humanity side-by-side even when there isn’t a disaster?

Esmeralda Valague, an Orthodox Catholic who recently moved from Houston to San Antonio, is in the Emergency Response industry and volunteers extensively for disaster relief and recovery. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.



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