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Young women lead progressive faith communities post-9/11

by Jennifer L. Pozner

Published in WIMNOnline.org, Jan. 5, 2002

Though the religious right has hogged the media spotlight, young women have led progressive religious groups in advocacy for peace in Afghanistan , safe and accessible reproductive health options for women, and equal distribution of wealth between rich and poor since 9/11.

Looking for comfort and clarity in the face of September 11th, many Americans turned to various religious communities for solace. Yet rather than embodying compassion, the religious models receiving the most attention in recent months have often seemed opportunistic and vengeful. Dozens of news outlets reported the now-infamous 700 Club episode in which Reverend Jerry Falwell told Pat Robertson that the terrorist attacks were the fault of feminists, gays and lesbians, pagans and civil liberties advocates who "tried to secularize America." And a flurry of gossip ensued when right wing pundit Ann Coulter suggested, in a vicious syndicated column, that America "should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

News from the White House was nearly as startling, as the line separating church and state became increasingly blurry. Though George W. Bush insisted that America was not seeking to wage a war against Islam, journalists criticized the president early on in the conflict when he pledged to launch a military "crusade" for "Infinite Justice" in order to rid the world of "evildoers." The administration's semantic clean-up crew quickly replaced the operative phrase "Infinite Justice" with "Enduring Freedom," but Bush's implication that God was on America's side in the war in Afghanistan persists. At the same time, school boards and government agencies have publicly sanctioned Christian religious activities: A city councilman in Georgia told the Associated Press that three plaques will be posted in public buildings – one with the Lord's Prayer, one with the Ten Commandments, and one blank, "for those who believe in nothing." Meanwhile, the AP reported that a North Carolina county commissioner used this justification for posting the Ten Commandments in a courthouse: "This is what our country is all about. It's God and country."

While focusing on the interesting dilemma such proclamations pose to the constitution, media often misrepresented or dismissed the perspectives of advocates actively opposing government-endorsed religion. More than a month after the terrorist attacks Time magazine ran the following headline: "Letting God back In; prayer, long banned from schools, is making a post-terror comeback. No one is protesting yet." [italics added]

The increasing codification of religion by government is a newsworthy story, as are the jingoistic and repressive statements of Christian right preachers and pundits. But lost in the discussion of the "God and country" crowd is any recognition that there are many ways to express spiritual faith in the United States. Far from the media spotlight, progressive Christian, Jewish and Muslim Americans have responded to terror not by preaching hellfire or hawkish military retaliation, but by working for social justice within their congregations and communities.

Young women: progressive, feminist – and religious

Young women are at the forefront of these progressive faith communities, bridging feminist activism, cultural compassion and religious traditions in pursuit of dignity and human rights for all people.

These are the values that led Sarah Eisenstein, 24, to become a community organizer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), a New York Jewish social justice group that since September 11 has been active in the anti-war movement, conducted workshops to combat anti-Arab racism in the Jewish community, has challenged indiscriminate racial profiling by legal authorities, and is developing educational curricula to address hate crimes and other forms of backlash against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians. This rapid response to 9/11’s backlash was a natural continuation of JFREJ's year-long campaign against anti-Arab racism, Eisenstein told WIMN.

As an immigrant population, "Jews have a long history of being targeted for scapegoating and political repression, and it is incumbent on us to speak out when it is happening to our neighbors," she added. Working to eradicate social injustice within this Jewish cultural and faith community is Eisenstein's way of "connecting my Jewish identity with my activist identity in a place that celebrated the history of radical Jewish activism" like that of revolutionary Emma Goldman and labor activist Rose Schneiderman.

The theme of justice comes up repeatedly in the Torah, the Halacha, and in many rabbinical teachings, Eisenstein said, which "may also be a reason many of us are drawn to social justice work."

On the first night of Chanukah, Eisenstein and fellow JFREJ members gathered at a catering hall in Brooklyn, New York for a festive, holiday meal. They weren't there to celebrate the Jewish "festival of lights" – they came to break bread with members of Muslims Against Terrorism and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee at an iftar, the traditional meal that breaks the sunrise-to-sunset fast observed by practicing Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

One of the main organizers of the iftar was Yasemin Saib, 27, interfaith coordinator for the national group Muslims Against Terrorism (MAT), which formed on September 12. In a phone interview with WIMN, Saib said, "I wanted to have an event where Muslims and Jews could engage in a dialogue that would be productive, peaceful, tolerant, and done in the spirit of understanding and respect, all of which are nonexistent in a lot of different circles."

"What better way to do that than to invite Jews into our community during our holy month, to share in the break-fast?" she asked, adding that the iftar is "a big deal for us, spiritually."

At the iftar approximately sixty Muslims and Jews, as well as several Arab Christians, ate together, shared communal prayers, and listened to blessing and words of insight from an imam, a Reform rabbi, and a Lebanese reverend. Evoking God, hope, peace and togetherness, Saib recalled, these clergy "all said the same things in different ways." That underlying sameness of spirit was what the event’s organizers hoped to accomplish with the interfaith gathering.

The event was premised on a simple but powerful notion, according to Saib: "All I really wanted was to say 'enough, already' with all the negativity that is surrounding us. Muslims need this as much as Jews do." Though the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, teaches that Jews and Christians are considered holy peoples, Saib said she is saddened that some members of the Muslim community have become isolationist, rarely pausing to ask, "Who is this Jewish person who is my neighbor?" As an interfaith activist she sees events like the communal iftar not only as a chance to build cross-cultural connections with Jews but also as an opportunity for Muslims to learn that "this Jewish person next to me is my sister or my brother, that the Jewish forefather Abraham and the Muslim prophet Muhammad have so much in common."

According to both Saib and Eisenstein, the iftar sparked several such moments of awakening among both communities. For example, attendees learned that fasting – whether during Ramadan, or during Yom Kippur or other points in the Jewish year – has similar significance relating to humility, empathy, discipline and gratitude to God.

When asked about her motivations for social justice work, Saib points to verse 548 in the Qur'an, which stresses that God "provided a multiplicity of religions" in order that all people should overcome their differences and "compete together in the performance of good deeds." Saib holds this verse close to her heart, quoting it at events such as the iftar because she believes her faith commands her to work for understanding and community among all people.

While interfaith work is an outgrowth of her religious belief, Saib recognizes that such activities could have positive political consequences. "Obviously, if there is a lot more tolerance and understanding between different groups of people there will be fewer problems. I’m pushing this so hard because I think it will dissolve so much of the ignorance that leads to terrorism," she said.

Bush rhetoric “sickening” to feminist minister

This respect for the interconnectedness of all people is a fundamental tenet of faith for Reverend Monica Corsaro, 33, youth director at University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington. "It's in our gospel to serve the widow and the orphan, the poor and the disenfranchised," Corsaro said, because "Jesus speaks more than 44 times in the gospels for economic justice, and he has more parables about equality between the rich and the poor than he does about everything else."

Preaching this interpretation of Christianity, Rev. Corsaro leads her church to provide shelter and youth programs for Seattle's homeless population. Throughout the past decade her ministry has also been active in the movement against U.S. sanctions in Iraq, and had planned a trip to distribute medical supplies there prior to September 11th. They have postponed their humanitarian mission until April. In recent months members of Corsaro’s congregation have participated in Operation Watchful Eye, a 24-hour community watch program organized after violence was committed against a local mosque after September 11, and have helped with a local anti-harassment program in which white women escorted Muslim women who feared for their safety when walking alone. The reverend is proud that her church has "promised to offer sanctuary to any Muslim who feels threatened, no questions asked."

Asked about President Bush’s implication that the United States has fought a just and moral battle in Afghanistan, Rev. Corsaro fires up righteous anger. "I was sickened, sickened, sickened when I heard Bush’s speeches, especially as a United Methodist," she said, because she believes the president, also a Methodist, is "using Jesus language as justification for a nationalism movement."

While Bush's speech at the National Cathedral comforted some religious people, the reverend says she found the president's "God and country rhetoric" offensive. "God is not American. God is everywhere. And I think it’s pretty clear from the gospel that Jesus was anti-war. He was about the revolutionary use of love, not the simplistic use of weapons," she added.

Like many political and spiritual issues, Reverend Corsaro sees the war on terrorism as connected to reproductive choice issues. "Bush keeps talking about evil, but if we want to talk about evil we have plenty of terrorism in our own backyard to keep us busy," Rev. Corsaro said, pointing to a history of domestic terrorism committed by fundamentalist Christian extremists against abortion clinics and women’s health groups over the past twenty-five years.

Reproductive rights and faith communities

This is one of the messages Corsaro stresses as board president of the Washington state chapter of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), whose national leadership recently published an ad headlined "Bombs, Bullets and Anthrax" in Roll Call and The Hill. Both are D.C. newspapers read by influential opinion leaders. Detailing a litany of murders, bombings, acts of vandalism and anthrax threats committed "all in the name of religion," RCRC's ad argues that anti-abortion terrorists "blaspheme the very religions they claim to represent, much like Osama bin Laden and Taliban forces who pervert the Islamic faith. "As we pray for the victims of September 11," the ad concludes, "so too must we intensify our struggle against those – whatever their ideology, theology and geographic origin – who would deprive us of our rights and freedoms."

Such arguments, clearly political but grounded in morality and respect for religious faith, are key to convincing centrists to support abortion rights, according to Rosemary Candelario, 31, executive director of RCRC’s Boston, Mass. chapter. Over the years, Candelario notes, the Christian right has co-opted the language of religion to paint reproductive choice supporters as amoral. In an interview in Boston after the group's annual meeting, Candelario explained that by answering that framework only in terms of a woman's right to make her own decisions, pro-choicers have lost the moral high ground in the public relations battle over abortion. "People in the pro-choice movement are always talking about how we can move people in the ‘mushy middle’ who haven’t made up their minds," she said. "I believe that the Religious Coalition has the key to moving people for whom words like ethics and morality and God and religion really resonate."

At the group's annual meeting at the Ohabi Shalom temple in Boston shortly after Thanksgiving, Candelario displayed an ad that ran on Boston subways and other public places stating plainly, "Abortion is a personal decision best left in the hands of a woman and her God." Committed to spreading this message in an active way, Candelario's RCRC chapter traveled to Wichita, Kansas this July to form a "peaceful presence" to oppose an "Operation Save America" (formerly Operation Rescue) campaign to harass local abortion providers and supporters. There, the Boston group joined with Reverend Corsaro's Seattle contingent, as well as community religious leaders, health care practitioners and teenage anarchists, who together were able to keep a targeted women’s health clinic open.

For Candelario, who describes herself as a "recovering Catholic," getting to know progressive people working for social justice has been personally rewarding. Working with RCRC has given her a perspective on religion that is broader and more humanistic than what she calls the traditional Catholic emphasis on sin and guilt. "I still get a thrill," Candelario said, "when I talk women rabbis and ministers who … are drawn to the clergy because they’re strong feminists and this is a way for them to be active."

Daniel Pellegrom, president of the reproductive rights organization Pathfinder International and an ordained Presbyterian minister, was keynote speaker at Mass. RCRC’s annual meeting. He described a forum convened in early October by the Open Society foundation, in which CEOs of twenty-five American humanitarian assistance groups gathered in New York City to discuss what September 11th "means for all of us who lead organizations doing development work in less developed countries." According to Pellegrom, a major theme at the meeting was that groups engaged in international reproductive health, anti-poverty and human rights work must not let the terrorist crisis impede their efforts to aid the world’s impoverished and imperiled women, for whom conditions certainly have not improved in recent months. Pointing to the punitive consequences of Bush’s global gag rule, Pellegrom implored RCRC members to "speak up for the women of Bangladesh and Uganda and India," who have few other advocates.

Since September 11 it has become harder for people of faith to muster the energy to serve the world, Pellegrom said, but it is now more important than ever that they do so. "Is it entirely accidental," he asked, "that terrorists seem to be protected and harbored in those countries where women enjoy the least protection?"

From Lesbian Avenger to Unitarian Universalist minister

Heather Janules, 29, embodies the energy Pellegrom spoke of. Janules' commitment to serving the world both politically and spiritually recently prompted her to leave the social service sector to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. "In a sick sort of way, 9/11 helped to eradicate any residual ambivalence I had about entering the ministry, in that I saw an immediate need for people to serve others in a pastoral and spiritual capacity and to be able to do so at a moment’s notice," she told WIMN.

Currently attending Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois, Janules believes that joining the Unitarian Universalist clergy will allow her to merge her inclusive sense of spirituality with her interest in serving the public, while remaining true to her progressive political roots, having spent several years as a member of the Lesbian Avengers, a radical activist group in Boston.

An accepting and supportive faith community can be incredibly affirming to lesbians and gays who have been shunned by many traditional religions, as well as to progressives who have dedicated their lives to fighting racism, sexism and poverty and find themselves spiritually drained by the struggle, Janules said. "I believe that the role of the Unitarian Universalist church is to heal people to the point where they are strong enough and connected enough to go out into the world and do good," she said.

Action is a big part of faith for Janules. When President Bush signed the global gag rule preventing international family planning organizations from talking about abortion if they receive U.S. aid, she ran a President’s Day fundraising drive at her church to benefit the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. And when a Chicago mosque felt threatened in the immediate aftermath of September 11, she and members of the Unitarian Universalist church in Hyde Park, Illinois, along with members of other area religious groups, held an interfaith service at the mosque and participated in a peace vigil calling for an end to hate crimes.

Describing two of the most important Unitarian Universalist principles as "the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, and respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part," Janules said she would site her U.U. faith as one reason why she has argued against the United States war in Afghanistan. It is immoral for Americans to "transform our suffering at the losses we have faced into the suffering of innocent Afghans," she said, "because I believe we spiritually connected to the Afghan people."


Resources related to this story:

Jennifer L. Pozner, Executive Director of Women In Media & News (WIMN), lectures on representations of women in the media. She can be reached at director@wimnonline.org

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