Statements & Press Releases
Building wellness, building belonging: New IU Health-funded grant project serves Central Indiana faith communities
Anne Laker, Laker Verbal
This week, it formed. A powerful new network for supporting the wellness resource needs of distinct cultural communities in Indianapolis.
At the Indiana Interchurch Center, with light pouring in through the stained glass windows of the Krannert Room, leaders from four communities gathered for the first time at the invitation of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC) and the IU Health Congregational Care Network (CCN):
- Masjid Al Mumineen (an eastside mosque serving Muslims from around the world)
- St. Monica’s (a Catholic parish on the northwest side with Spanish, French/West African, and English speakers)
- Hope for Tomorrow (a southside non-profit serving Burmese immigrants and refugees)
- the Grassroots Maternal Child Health program (facilitating systems change that improves maternal and child health outcomes in marginalized neighborhoods).
The rallying point for these diverse partners is a generous three-year Community Impact Investment Fund grant from IU Health for a project conceived by CIC and CCN with the long but accurate name of “Strengthening Healthy Support Networks in Minoritized Communities.” “Minoritized” communities may be abundant, rich, and well-established … but perhaps less visible or more isolated—and not by choice.
The project goal is to increase health resources and health outcomes in congregations with higher immigrant populations. And to grow trust and mutual interfaith understanding at the same time.
The project, and the meeting, kicked off with an ice breaker about what brings us joy. Rev. John P. McCaslin of St. Monica had been up late the night before, tending to the spiritual needs of a parishioner who had lost a loved one. But he arrived in time to share that he receives joy from his rescue cat, Magdalena (Maggie for short).
Another ice breaker question: what do we love most about our communities? For Julius Ali Mansa, board vice president at Masjid Al Mumineen, it is the international quality of the Islamic community. A North Central High School graduate and Hoosier native, Julius shared that he has lived in Morocco, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, and that wherever in the world Muslims gather, many languages are spoken.
But sometimes, cultural barriers prevent access to resources for health. CIC Program Director Josih Hostetler explained that, thanks to the grant, the four communities will host a CIC-sponsored AmeriCorps member drawn from that community who will connect the community with health services and help organize health fairs and community celebrations (while receiving training in religious literacy and non-profit administration). Communities will also receive monthly stipends to help support this work.
Shadreck Kamwendo, the Congregation Care Network manager at IU Health, shared the wonderful existing resource of CCN, which organizes volunteers from faith communities who stand ready to support patients with no one else to support their at-home recovery.
Justin Thang, founding director of Hope for Tomorrow, was overwhelmed with excitement to learn about these resources. His organization builds bridges between the Burmese and American communities, and empowers Burmese refugees with resources to achieve hopeful, successful futures. He spoke of his own grief as a newcomer to the U.S., as he struggled to complete his homework in a new language as an elementary school student. He spoke of the ongoing trauma of a violent civil war and military coup in Myanmar that weighs heavily on the minds of the local Burmese, and his community’s hesitation to step into the community at large here in Indiana.
Grief counseling, HIV testing, immunizations, substance abuse counseling, health care in general: depending on need, these are just a few of the resources that the “Strengthening Healthy Support Networks” project will bring to people who need them.
In turn, each community has assets to share. Everyone gathered completed an assessment of community strengths. What innovations, special places, cultural arts, leadership, or social capital does each community bring?
As Charlie Wiles, CIC executive director pointed out, the Indiana Interchurch Center has an art gallery. Imagine the feeling of belonging that could be created if the whole community were invited to explore, say, the art of the Burmese community.
Belonging and wellness. The most human of needs, to be served with humility and trust through this nascent and promising project. There is much goodness to come.
(L to R): Jennifer Neer (CIC), Ismail Abdul Aleem (Masjid Al Mumineen), Barb Bacon (St. Monica), Maria Pimentel-Gannon (St. Monica), Charlie Wiles (CIC), Julius Ali Mansa (Masjid Al Mumineen), Josih Hostetler (CIC), Tim Bush (St. Monica), Justin Thang (Hope for Tomorrow), Shadreck Kamwendo (CCN), Prof. Jack Turman (Fairbanks School of Public Health), David Love (CIC).
Not pictured: Rev. John McCaslin (St. Monica), Marcos Collado (Riley Health), Jay Foster (IU School of Medicine).
Center for Interfaith Cooperation Announces New Board Chair
Center for Interfaith Cooperation is excited to announce the election of new board chair, Imam Ahmed Alamine. Imam Alamine first joined the board of directors in 2019 as a leader at the Indiana Muslim Community Association, his interfaith work on the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department as the first Muslim Police Chaplain, Chaplain of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, and his extensive non-profit work. The Imam is one of three board members of the Muslim faith. He will begin his duties as board chair in January 2023.
In addition to appointing Imam Alamine to the board, six additional board members were added to the already diverse board. Ernest Lifferth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Dr. Priya Menon of the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana, Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader of Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, Ephraim Palmero III from the Seventh Day Adventists, Dr. Gregory Shufeldt of the University of Indianapolis, and Stephanie Mozee from Family Development Services.
Established in 2011, Center for Interfaith Cooperation has had over 120 religious and community representatives serve as leaders on their board of directors. Within those more than 120 leaders, at least nine (9) distinct faiths traditions have been represented along with dozens of distinct denominations. The religious diversity of CIC’s board of directors is only part of the work they do to fulfill their mission to provide a safe environment that provides resources and opportunities for service to increase religious literacy, build empathy between faiths, and facilitate interfaith encounters.
The Borders of Interfaith: A CIC Conversation with Pastor Danny Davis and Imam Mikal Saahir
If two communities share a border, how will the two groups interact? How ought people or organizations act as neighbors? How can neighbors avoid conflict and treat each other well? Must borders cause conflict or can proximity be a vehicle for community and collaboration?
Neighbors around the world struggle with these questions of conduct. Whether people share a cul de sac, a state line, or a national border, a shared space induces a shared relationship. Shared spaces make these relationships unique; neighbors have a relationship not by choice but by circumstance. Our relationships with our neighbors offer insight to all our relationships. More so than any other relationship, the relationships we have with our neighbors illuminate how we relate to ourselves.
Of all the boundaries in the world, borders separating religious groups have often been the most contentious. Since time immemorial, religious borders have been a cause of destructive and harmful dispute. Whether the Crusades of medieval history or contemporary conflicts like the status of Palestine or Kashmir, religious boundaries have a propensity for causing conflict. Within an ever-more interconnected world, however, we have a pressing need for conflict to give way to collaboration and for religion to act as a vehicle of unity rather than division. Religious leaders have a unique role in this project of interfaith collaboration and community building. As congregations look to their leaders, the leaders set the tone for the relationships across religious borders. Whether positive or negative, the relationships across religious boundaries are set by those at the pulpit. Collaboration between leaders of different faiths illustrates how interfaith cooperation is achievable.
In East Indianapolis, the leaders of the Nur-Allah Islamic Center and First United Church are proof positive of this idea, demonstrating how different religious communities can collaborate and cooperate. The relationship between Nur-Allah and First United is unique because of their proximity: the two houses of worship share a single plot of land. In a field, adjacent to a lively thoroughfare, sit the two religious communities. On one side of the plot, leaning towards the road in friendly invitation, sits the Nur-Allah Islamic Center. Across an imperceivable boundary and slightly recessed into the broad green field is the First United Church. No physical barrier separates the two places of worship; no fence, no gate, no difference in upkeep can distinguish the two plots of land. In every manner except the deed, the two houses of worship occupy the same campus.
During a visit to the shared campus earlier this fall, the leaders of the two communities only reinforced the sense of peaceful coexistence evident externally. Imam Mikal Saahir and Pastor Danny Davis capture the harmonious coexistence the shared campus seems to represent. Like the shared campus, the relationship between the two religious leaders also show no barriers: Imam Mikal Saahir and Pastor Danny Davis interact with obvious respect and mutual appreciation. Shared concern for the local community and similar life experiences of the two men (Pastor Davis’ father was an Indianapolis firefighter at the same time as Imam Saahir) gird their relationship as both individuals and men of God. An outside observer might contemplate the significance of their peaceful coexistence, but their relationship runs deeper than nominal differences of faith. Like the divide between the two places of worship, the divide between the two holy men is largely perceived. To a surprising degree, their religious backgrounds play a mostly limited role in their relationship. In fact, to the extent religion plays a role at all, it reinforces their relationship. Although both men share a common background, their piety forms another basis for collaboration: Imam Saahir and Pastor Davis perceive the role of faith within their relationship in a similar light.
In conversation with the two men, both stressed the emphasis Chrsitian and Islamic Theology place on neighborly virtue. “What I know from the study of scripture is that we are called to be neighbors… Love your God; love your neighbor”, were Pastor Davis’ thoughts. In a similar vein, Imam Saahir remarked: “The words of Muhammad say always be kind to your neighbor”. Later in conversation, the Imam recalled that Allah’s instruction on neighborship was so extensive that Muhammad believed he must put the neighbor into his inheritance. Far from impairing their relationship, their religious backgrounds have informed it.
Although both men would likely collaborate outside a religious context, their religious backgrounds inform and reinforce their collaboration and friendship. Despite drawing upon different religious traditions, their religious instruction acts as catalyst for neighborly cooperation rather than a challenge to it. For religious communities throughout Indiana, the United States, and the World, perhaps the relationship between Pastor Davis and Imam Saahir may serve as an example. Like the property line between First United and the Nur-Allah or the piety of Pastor Davis and Imam Saahir, oftentimes the borders which separate us are largely perceived.
Written by Noah Giddings, CIC Fall 2022 Intern
Center for Interfaith Cooperation is about words. Words that express our humanity and help to define our relationship to the divine through our relationship with one another across a beautifully diverse religious landscape.
Sacred texts and words of wisdom from all our faith traditions help to guide daily actions as well as inform thoughts about eternity.
Our goal in producing statements is not only to seek common language and understanding regarding particular events, but also to illuminate the places where we have honest differences. CIC’s mission is to build empathy for other positions while further defining and challenging our individual convictions.
We have never hesitated to stand in solidarity when any one of our faith communities is attacked. We all vigorously support an open pluralistic society where everyone feels free to worship as they choose or not to worship at all. Our challenges come when it when we approach social issues and the pursuit of equity in all we do. We pride ourselves in building trust across theological and ideological difference.
Below are more statements from CIC and community partners. We hope that you join the conversation and bring your voice to the ongoing conversation.
CIC Values Statement
The Board, Officers and Staff of Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC) value and respect people. As a result, we appreciate diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, socioeconomic background, age, religious belief, and any other differences that have been used to divide people. We work to ensure that our membership represents the fullness of the community in which we are located. We are dedicated to diversity in our positions of leadership and in decision-making conversations.
CIC emphatically renounces occasions throughout history where faith and religion have been used to encourage and justify antisemitism, racism, white supremacy, war, discrimination, genocide, sexism, violence, poverty, and any other form of bigotry or oppression. CIC recognizes that these practices are antithetical to the teachings of all religious traditions. The Board, Officers, and Staff of CIC acknowledge their own conscious and unconscious biases that perpetuate injustice and commit themselves to continuous learning and actively pursuing behavior that demonstrates the intrinsic value of all people.
CIC is focused on education and service. It is not an advocacy organization and does not typically track or comment on legislation or lobby for political action at the local, national, or international level. However, CIC believes in seeking equity, diversity, and inclusion. We will collaborate with individuals, faith communities, and organizations that share its values and support interfaith initiatives that build relationships, support the vulnerable in our community, and create hospitable spaces for dialogue and service. CIC recognizes the wisdom, reflected in all religious traditions, of treating others as we would like to be treated.
CIC recognizes, respects, and celebrates the fact that each of the world’s faith traditions is unique and that many of the differences between those traditions are irreconcilable. However, CIC is also aware that there is commonality across all faith traditions that share a deep longing for a more peaceful, just, and verdant community, both in central Indiana and across the globe. The Board, Officers and Staff of CIC understand that differences in our religious traditions can make it challenging to find consensus, but we believe that there is strength in these differences. We do not seek to dictate specific policies for the governance of organizations and groups with which we are associated. However, we do commit to certain behaviors within CIC:
• We are actively working to eradicate racism and discrimination from our
organization, striving to vigilantly address macro and microaggressions.
• We strive to operate with transparency.
• We seek to listen actively and share openly.
• We are adaptable, understanding that change is integral to growth.
• We are dedicated to the wellness of our community, including our staff, board,
volunteers, and AmeriCorps members. We aim to provide a workplace that fosters
physical and mental health.
• We value hospitality. We extend invitations openly, and we strive to provide
accommodations where necessary to ensure equitable experiences.
Founding CIC Board Chair launches initiative to recenter Indiana politics
2023 Interfaith Ambassador - Jerry Zehr
“Jerry Zehr is an ordained minister and has been a parish minister for over 35 years. He has
had a passion for interfaith work from the beginning of his ministries. In 1989 while serving
his first pastorate, he helped form and became the President of the Indianapolis Interfaith Alliance. Before this time, there were Jewish/ Christian dialogue groups but no organization that included Muslims, Bahai, and other faith traditions.
He has been a leader in Interfaith ministries for over 35 years, helping to create four interfaith organizations, including the Carmel Interfaith Alliance and the Indiana Multifaith Network. He was a member of the Northern Kentucky Interfaith Commission. He was on the planning team that hosted the Yom Ha Shoah service every year for Jewish and Christian remembrance of the Holocaust in Florence, Kentucky. He was on the Board of Associated Churches and United Way in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
He was the Chairperson of Vision Southside (a coalition of Faith communities and businesses seeking to make the Southside of Fort Wayne, Indiana, a more viable area for business and residence). They developed a video that received three different awards from the state of Indiana.
Rev. Zehr led congregational efforts that have made possible many specific projects in the rebuilding of Bosnia after the war in 1995, including supplying tractors, orchards of fruit trees, and 50,000 of seed money for micro-credit loans. The different faith communities were required to work together, or they would not receive these funds. He has led several Habitat house builds resulting in over a dozen local churches funding and framing seven houses.
Retired from parish ministry after serving Carmel Christian Church in Carmel, Indiana, he received the Range Line Pioneer Award from Mayor Brainard in 2021.
He has a new book entitled “The Peacemaker’s Path: Multifaith Reflections to Deepen Your Spirituality.” Through daily readings that explore the tenets, teachings, writings, and prayers of these diverse faith traditions, you will gain new insight, understanding, and connection with people from different religious backgrounds. Each day offers a reflection, scripture passages from the world’s religions, questions to contemplate, a call to action, and a closing prayer.
Jerry and his wife Diane have been married for over 37 years with two daughters and two grandchildren.”