Stories and Updates
Local Faith Leaders Gather for Tree Planting, Show of Unity
Center for Interfaith Cooperation and Keep Indianapolis Beautiful celebrate “Giving Treesday” with interfaith gathering and tree planting at Lutheran Child and Family Services
INDIANAPOLIS – This afternoon, the Center for Interfaith Cooperation and Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB) partnered to host “Giving Treesday” at Lutheran Child and Family Services (1525 N Ritter Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46219). As part of the Giving Tuesday movement, the gathering provided an
intentional space for faith-based communities and local residents to connect, reflect, and take lasting action by adding to the urban tree canopy.
The event included remarks from Center for Interfaith Cooperation Executive Director Charlie Wiles, Imam Ahmed Alamine of the Indianapolis Muslim Community Association, Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, Father
Rick Ginther of the Catholic Archdiocese Office of Ecumenism & Interreligious Affairs, and Susmita Singh of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh.
“Center for Interfaith Cooperation is enthusiastic to partner with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful on an interfaith tree planting to help heal our earth and our shared humanity,” said Charlie Wiles, Executive Director of Center for Interfaith Cooperation. “I believe that prayer can be a good intention that translates into action. Planting trees, together, demonstrates our determination for a better environment, cleaner air, shade, and beauty that will benefit future generations.”
“For almost 50 years, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful has worked with people from all walks of life to make the city a better place for everyone. Many faith traditions share a common moral obligation to care for the world around us, and we look forward to joining hands to help people and nature thrive,” said Jeremy Kranowitz, President and CEO of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.
The event marks the final tree planting of KIB’s project season. This year, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful has planted over 3,000 trees throughout Marion County. The trees planted during the event will have an impact for generations to come, including cleaner air, carbon mitigation, and stormwater retention.
Giving Treesday is being held as part of Giving Tuesday, which was created in 2012 with a simple goal: create a day that encourages people to do good. Since then, it has grown into a year-round global movement that inspires hundreds of millions of people to give, collaborate, and celebrate generosity.
Press Release Provided by Keep Indiana Beautiful
Meet IEC Member, Rashida Abdulhaqq
IEC Member Profile: Sister Rashidah
“I love dealing with the dirt,” says Rashidah Abdulhaqq, a CIC Interfaith Enrichment Corps member stationed
at Touba Gardens. “Dirt is good for you,” she says from experience. Her endearment to soil rings true for a
woman who’s raised many children, grown a lot of food, and created community wherever she’s gone in her 73 years.
She was just a girl when her family migrated from Plumerville, Arkansas to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1950s to seek work in the auto industry. When they came, they brought with them a peach stone from her grandfather’s Arkansas orchard. “After seven years, that tree gave the most beautiful peaches in Cleveland,” she remembers. Her grandfather had 40 acres where he grew peaches, apples and pears. On summer visits down south,
Rashidah and cousins would wash and peel the fruits before they got laid out to dry on the house’s hot tin roof. “People came from miles around to buy that dried fruit,” she says.
In Cleveland, young Rashidah had her own garden, planted with tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, at Miles Standish Elementary which had an agriculture education program. Years later (2013-2022), Rashidah would
work for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund to get dozens of hoop houses/high tunnels built in Cleveland, to extend the growing season and encourage food sovereignty.
“That was the topic of my capstone project for my masters degree,” she says: “the effect of high tunnel hothouses in District 11.” Rashidah got her M.A. in food sustainability in 2018 from Green Mountain College, after earning her B.A. from an online adult learning program in 2012.
Rashidah has worn lots of other hats, too: as a member of the Cleveland School Board (1998-2011), as a member of Cleveland’s Hunger Network, always as a connector to resources. “School supplies, bread, clothes, copies of birth certificate: I’ve helped track it down if that’s what needed doing.” She adds with a smile: “I enjoyed myself.” She’s also met a Tanzanian ambassador, worked with Bill Clinton’s cabinet members… and she’s proud of sharing a birthday with Malcom X.
Throughout it all, Rashidah has played a lifelong role as mother. She had her first son at 20; today she is a matriarch of many Muslims. Three of her kids live in Indianapolis, and her grandkids and “great grands” live all over. One of her daughters is the director of a senior program that delivers meals to the elderly. Two of her grandsons were lost to gun violence. Hardship and loss are no match for Rashidah. Raised as a southern Baptist, she and her brother converted to Islam In the throes of the civil rights movement in 1968. “It made sense to me,” she says. “Islam is about common sense.”
Rashidah explains that in Islam, “There is one God and he has no partners…Islam teaches you to take nothing for granted, because too many other people depend on the same thing,” she explains. Islam teaches that the Earth is entrusted to Muslims by Allah; humans are accountable to Allah for betrayal of trust if they damage the Earth irreversibly.
So stewarding the land is embedded in Rashidah’s nature. In her work as an IEC member, Rashidah works with Touba Gardens founder and leader Mame Bousso to bring “garden therapy” to those who need it. The two met at Masjid Al Mumineen when Rashidah had moved back to Indianapolis in 2021 to be near her children. Rashidah and Mame Bousso are seeking to make the garden accessible to seniors, those with limited mobility, and those with dementia. “Because that’s good therapy!” says Rashidah. Touba also engages youth and families in growing their own food, for health and affordability, without chemicals.
Thyme is Rashidah’s favorite herb: it grows like a small tree, and it persists, even as the days shorten. Like a plant, Rashidah seeks the sun. “Don’t close yourself off,” she advises with gusto and grace. “Get out there and help people. Because the creator gave you a life: live it.”
Written by Anne Laker
Meet IEC Member, Nahla Ameen
IEC Member Profile: Nahla Ameen
Nahla Ameen — mother of six, and one of four founders of the Al Haqq Foundation Academy and Daycare — giggles often.
Her smiles are like a reflex for finding peace amid chaos, or finding the fun in work. No wonder she has this reflex. Nahla comes from a long line of caregivers and educators: her mother ran a home daycare. “I would take attendance with my stuffed animals,” she
recalls with one of her signature giggles.
Fast forward to 2017: Nahla was running her own home daycare when Imam Muhammad Ndiaye of the Al Haqq Foundation, a Muslim faith community on the city’s northwest side, asked her to come and do the creative work of setting up a school and daycare at the mosque.
“We started with four students,” Nahla says. “I had to set the daily schedule, select paint colors for the rooms, get the bookcases, everything. It was a beautiful thing to start!” she says. A school based on Islamic principles of faith, charity and prayer, she explains, is a comfort to parents who “want to leave their children with people who fear God first.”
After several years of nurturing the school and its students as a volunteer, Nahla left to pursue a job in the medical field. When the job ended without warning in summer 2023, she needed work badly. One of her fellow Academy founders, Sister MomJara, told her about the Center for Interfaith Cooperation’s Interfaith Enrichment Corps. Now she could be compensated for the same work she’d previously volunteered for.
“This is my life’s work,” says Nahla. “Connecting with people from different faiths, doing charity work, giving back!” She says being an IEC member reminds her of an image of a circle of hands of different colors, joined together in purpose. She’s so far enjoyed learning about meditation, meeting a practicing pagan for the first time, attending an interfaith service at Lucas Oil Stadium, and hearing about the projects of her fellow IEC members — while deepening her own faith.
Born in Lansing, Michigan to parents who converted to Islam in college, Nahla finds that Islam gives her “a blueprint for how to live my life: how to eat, pray, and worship.” As a young adult, she went through a time of exploring other religions. “It was Islam that answered all my questions.” It guided her in her role as mother to Yusuf (25), Hasanah (23), Yaqeen (16), Nouri (12), Nasir (9), and Aamir (3).
During the present time of a heart-wrenching war between Israel and Hamas, Nahla calls on her faith when explaining the conflict to her younger children. “It’s true, babies are dying,” she admits to them. “There is nothing to do but pray for now. We’re on the side of a cease fire. And we believe Allah will not take something from you without giving you better,” she says. Despite the fearful cultural climate, Nahla does not want to raise children to be afraid of the world. “I want them to develop their own opinions, with knowledge.”
Such is the purpose of any good school. Today, the Al Haqq Foundation Academy and Daycare that she co-founded serves 84 youth. At the hour I visited, one class was preparing for wudu, the ritual of cleaning one’s face, arms, head, and feet before prayer. Another class was learning to write in an Arabic language. Yet another was away on a field trip to The Children’s Museum.
“The school has come so far,” says Nahla with pride. There are now 11 teachers. “I used to know every student! Now there are so many that I don’t.” Her son Nasir attends the school and her son Aamir attends daycare. Nahla works alongside her colleague, Sister MomJara (“we are bonded as soul sisters,” says Nahla. “We share the same birthday, August 25”), solving problems and keeping everything moving at this unique school of knowledge and human development.
Nahla Ameen found her calling long ago: guiding young minds with care and compassion.
Written by: Anne Laker
Butler Intern, Stasia, reflects on her experience at the Indianapolis Prayer Breakfast
The 2023 Indianapolis Prayer Breakfast was on October 3rd in the Indiana Roof Ballroom. This event gathered a diverse group of Christians from central Indiana. The Center for Interfaith Cooperation was a Bronze sponsor for this event, and as an intern with the CIC I had the opportunity to attend it.
The event began by giving an honor to a local ministry who reflected the messages in the passage Isaiah 58.
Many Christians believe that this passage outlines what true prayer and fasting are. The event donated one dollar from every ticket sold to this local ministry and allowed participants at the event to donate more if they felt inclined to. The event next presented several prayers toward the betterment of Indianapolis. Whether this was
for the service workers, the veterans, the youth, first-responders, and those employed or looking for employment, the prayers included many dimensions of the Indianapolis community. Participants who were directly impacted or involved with each prayer were asked to stand. These prayers were done as a thank you, a call for guidance, and
a hope for peace. It would be nice to include more of an interfaith perspective within these prayers in the future. This could be done through an acknowledgement of our neighbors in Indianapolis who have different faiths
outside of Christianity or by including a prayer presented by someone who identifies with a different faith tradition than Christianity.
This year’s keynote speaker was Pete Shimer, the Chief Operating Officer of Deloitte. Deloitte is one of the largest professional services organizations in the United States. He shared the impact God had on his life and how his faith has become a vital part of his work-life. He was a talented and eloquent speaker, and it was interesting to hear his perspective. He described how his upbringing was one without religion and how he used to consider himself a self-reliant person when it comes to thinking of the future. He said that he never really thought about what happens after death until his junior year of high school when his older brother was in a car crash that unfortunately caused the ending of his girlfriend’s life. He explained how this new perspective sparked a growth in his spiritual path.
He also discussed how his parents taught him the importance of service from a young age. After an international mission trip, he and his wife looked for ways to give back to their home community. They now focus primarily on service for youth, athletics, and education. Shimer, a former basketball player from the University of Washington, discussed how sports set people up with skills that can be transferred into regular life. Sport is often thought of as a medium for community building, so it was fascinating to hear that this also has the potential for religious learning. It would be interesting to hear more about this perspective and better understand how he coaches sports through a faith-based lens.
Additionally, a crucial aspect of his speech was when he described the book Love Your Enemies by Arthur C. Brooks. Here he discussed how we need to learn to disagree. Many have a tendency to wait for a pause in conversation to interject our ideas and prove that we are right instead of actually listening to what others have to say. Shimer also stated how people do things in the name of Jesus even when it doesn’t necessarily align with what Jesus believed in. This can especially be seen through America’s current political landscape. He further described how we have become increasingly polarized. The topics discussed in this book and Shimer’s speech are important to understand. Learning how to listen to different perspectives can help us grow into a stronger interfaith community as well as de-escalate our extreme political atmosphere. This was a great lesson that everyone can reflect on and work toward incorporating into our personal lives. It took humility and great empathy for Shimer to be able to recognize the importance of these messages.
In the future, the Prayer Breakfast could work toward being more inclusive of all faiths and perspectives. The Indianapolis Prayer Breakfast notes on their website that this event’s purpose is to gather Christians who believe in the power of prayer to change the world. If this organization wants to focus solely on Christianity, it would be more accurate if they renamed the event to the Indianapolis Christian Prayer Breakfast, as the name can be misleading. It would also be a great step for inclusion, if Indianapolis hosted an Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, especially if the group wants to keep the original prayer breakfast to just Christian faiths. Overall, the keynote speaker was compelling, and this event was effective in bringing a large group together to pray for the betterment of the Indianapolis community.
Written by: Stasia Raebel
Meet IEC Member, Talha Kahf
Twenty-year-old Talha Kahf has zeal and skill for assisting people in need. He is also a thoughtful ambassador for the Muslim faith. These qualities make him an ideal member of the Interfaith Enrichment Corps (IEC) AmeriCorps Program, organized by CIC.
Born to parents of Syrian heritage in California and raised in the Muslim faith, Talha and his family moved to Indiana in 2020. He started his IEC year of service in September 2023 at Masjid Al Mumineen, an active mosque led by Imam Ismail Abdul-Aleem on the city’s near northeast side in the Avondale Meadows neighborhood.
A social work student at IUPUI, Talha’s work at Al Mumineen includes assisting with the food pantry; providing American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation at jumu’ah (the special noon prayer service on Friday); keeping up with the mosque’s IT and organizational needs; prepping space for the first Muslim-led community development corporation to move in to the mosque; and staffing Straight Path, a reentry support group program.
Talha is working to be a resource for health within his faith community, as part of the Strengthening Healthy Support Networks in Minoritized Communities project, funded by a three-year grant to CIC from IU Health’s Community Impact Investment Fund.
An analysis of the health needs of the Al Mumineen community by its leaders showed that stress relief, healthy food access, and support for re-entry into the community are high priorities. Talha works in all three of these areas.
Helping people re-enter society after a prison term is important work at Al Mumineen, for Talha, and for the people it serves. “The Straight Path group has been going on for more than a decade,” says Talha. “It’s the only one in Indianapolis founded and run by people who were formerly incarcerated, and the only one that is Islam-based.” Talha says that Straight Path provides moral and philosophical support while offering care packages and job placement help to those newly released. Given the number of people who convert to Islam while in prison, Straight Path also hopes to someday start a Muslim-specific transitional housing program, much like the Wheeler Mission’s Christian-based services.
Meanwhile, Al Mumineen provides food to the hungry through Lut’s Pantry, every fourth Saturday of the month. Lut, Talha explains, was a prophet and nephew of Abraham. Lut’s Pantry distributes fresh seasonal vegetables, canned foods and home-cooked meals as well.
Talha also brings his own special skills, like ASL, to IEC. “I started learning sign language at 11 just because I thought it was a really cool language,” he says. He’s now minoring in it at IUPUI and is interpreting jumʿah at each Friday at Al Mumineen. “Members of the deaf community have shown up because they know I’m here.”
As an IEC member, Talha works to strengthen Al Mumineen’s own capacity to improve the social determinants of health for its community. One of his passions is working to prevent domestic violence. He recently completed an internship with the Indiana Coalition against Domestic Violence. “It would be a dream job to work there in the future,” he says, noting his passion for civic engagement and public policy advocacy, a key domestic violence prevention tool.
In October 2023, a militant Islamic group attacked Israel, after decades of oppression. As people around the world witness this tragic conflict in the Middle East, Talha, who has been to Palestine and has seen the walls built to surround Muslims, has many thoughts including this one: “There are people on both sides that do not condone the violence.”
In America, organizations like CIC work to help members of all faiths receive respect in a diverse society. Next up: Talha and will be assisting with a health fair planned for December 13 at CIC. There is so much good work to be done by Talha Kahf, an Emerging Interfaith Leader in his community.
Written by: Anne Laker
CIC responds to violence in the middle east
We, the board and staff members of Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC), stand in solidarity as we grieve and continue to pray for the
victims of violence in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the profound impact this has on our local community. We ask that people of good faith affirm the dignity inherent in every human being, and we call on leaders, in our community and throughout the world, to exercise restraint and to serve as an example for others.
CIC Board Chair, Imam Ahmed Alamine, says that he is “encouraged by the growing relations between the Muslim and Jewish community here in Indianapolis”. And he is “inspired by positive steps that are being taken to bring young people of different faith backgrounds together for better understanding”.
CIC encourages each of us to move beyond a comfort zone to build empathy for people who see and experience things differently and to reaffirm the commitment to work for a better future.
Reflections from Parliament of the World’s Religions 2023
On August 17th, a group of CIC delegates comprising of staff, board, and Interfaith Enrichment Corps members rented a passenger van and headed to Chicago for 2 days to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions. We were a small group in a setting of over 7,000 attendees there to experience presentations, exhibitors, and being in the presence of other like-minded people dedicated to the interfaith movement. Here are a few of our most memorable take-aways from the event.
Connor Bomar, Interfaith Enrichment Corps member
I went to the Parliament a day early for one specific panel event titled “Sacramental Plants and Fungi: Historical and Scientific Insights for the Religious Life”. This panel consisted of Elaine Pagels (a revered scholar of religion), Jaime Clark-Soles (a Baptist minister and participant in a recent study), Rev. Mike Young, Father Richard Rohr (a beloved author, speaker, and Franciscan priest), and Robert (Bob) Jesse (a renowned researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research). The presentation delved into the millennia-old use of entheogenic plant medicines in spiritual practices and recent scientific studies, showcasing their potential in inducing profound, spiritually significant experiences and lasting, positive psychological affects. The findings from the1962 Marsh Chapel experiment (of which Mike Young was a subject) and a recent Johns Hopkins and NYU study were discussed, emphasizing their relevance to historical and future religious and psychiatric practices.
The next evening, I had the privilege of having a conversation with Bob Jesse at the hotel restaurant. We discussed the research, its potential for healing, and everything in between. This subject holds a special place in my heart, and in the heart of many people that I hold dear. I have been following the research for years, devouring books on the history of sacramental plants and fungi, and I’ve watched as they’ve positively transformed so many people. The potential for these medicines to change our relationship to ourselves, to nature, and to alter our dependence on pharmaceutical intervention is exciting and promising.
These are moments that I will never forget.
Charlie Wiles, Center for Interfaith Cooperation Executive Director
Traveling to Chicago with friends and colleagues from CIC to witness the Parliament of the World’s Religions was an unforgettable experience. The conversations as we traveled together were deep and enriching. Each of the workshops, panel discussions, and exhibit booths I visited were insightful and educational. It was truly inspiring to see people from all over the world gathered to share and learn about the beauty and compassion brought forward by our diverse religious communities. The langar lunches provided by the Sikh community brought out a spirit of love and generosity. The theme of this Parliament was Defending Religious Freedom, and it was a historical moment to witness Reverend Jesse Jackson receive a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to civil rights and equality. To the right is a photo of Reverend Jackson with his daughter and Congressman Bobby Rush.
Josih Hostetler, Center for Interfaith Cooperation Program Director
On Friday I was able to connect with the Parliament’s Call to Conscience by joining with the beautiful creation that exists within and around us. I took a stroll by Lake Michigan and then took the Metra to the morning Plenary where sounds from the drum circle filled the hall. I heard the interfaith call for creation care from Native American Spiritual leaders from throughout the Americas and will put this call into action!
Jennifer Neer, Center for Interfaith Cooperation Director of Development and Marketing
One of the most memorable moments for me was stumbling upon a Pagan ceremony on Friday morning on
the outer west patio of the convention center. It was a beautiful morning with the sun still rising over Lake Michigan sitting in the distance but close enough to smell it. There we people of all faiths participating in chants, songs, and a celebration of Mother Earth. While my personal thought is that Pagans have a certain stereotype, it was apparent that everyone there was for one purpose, regardless of their faiths, to thank
the earth for all it provides and to remind ourselves that we need to continue to take care of it and
each other. It brought me joy. It brought me peace. And it brought me a better understanding of how we
are all on this one planet together.
Dr. Joni Clark, Interfaith Enrichment Corps member
This lovely sister invited me to take a tour of the Muslim Community Center. In preparation for the tour, she showed me how to wrap a hijab. It wasn’t mandatory for the tour, but I wanted to get a sense of what some of my female family and friends experience in worship and everyday life.
High Holy Days - A Reflection by Alan Bercovitz
In the Jewish Faith, we are about to begin the 10 day period known as Yamin Noraim, the Days of Awe, more commonly known as the High Holy Days. For centuries, Jewish people have gathered together as a community to stop and think about the year past and the year ahead. This year, Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on September 15th, corresponding to the 1st day of Tishrei in the year 5784 on the Hebrew calendar, and ends at sundown on September 17th; Yom Kippur begins at sundown on September 24th (the 10th of Tishrei) and ends at sundown on September 25th.
Rosh Hashanah, “The Head of the Year,” is a gift of time and an opportunity to learn and grow. It is a happy time as we welcome the New Year, but it is also a serious time as we think about ourselves, what we have done in the past year, and how we may do better in the year ahead. We eat apples dipped in honey in the hope of a sweet New Year. In a dramatic and powerful part of the service, the Shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown to announce the New Year and awaken us in the intention to do better. We ask God for a happy and peaceful year, and we give thanks to God for all good things. God opens the Book of Life which contains all the things we have done in the past year, each of our lives comes before God, and God judges us for the coming year. The Book is kept open, and we each have the power to change our judgment through prayer, forgiveness, and good deeds (the Book is closed at the end of Yom Kippur). When the service concludes, we say “L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu,” may you be written in the Book of Life for a good year.
Yom Kippur, “The Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is serious and holy, but not sad. After a festive meal, a fast is begun prior to the start of services. This fast allows more time to pray and helps us to know hunger. Kol Nidre, “all the vows,” the most beautiful service of the year, begins at sundown. We ask God for forgiveness. It is the only evening service when tallit (prayer shawls) are worn. The Torah are taken out, and the Kol Nidre prayer is chanted three times. An all day service follows the next day, as we pray a confession of sins, not only for our own sins, but for the sins of others, for things either done or not done. Yizkor, a memorial service, is the time to remember family and friends who have died. To honor their memory, we promise to give Tzedakah, or contributions, to help those in need. The Biblical story of Jonah is told during the service. Neilah, or “closing,” is the final part of the service, as the Book of Life is closed. The Shema is chanted to reaffirm our belief in God, and the Shofar is once again blown. After sundown, the long fast is broken.
As each of us looks at our individual lives during this period of introspection, may we all as well look at the vast world around us that continues to need our prayers.
Medical Director Emeritus, Joshua Max Simon Primary Care Center
Medical Director Seton Cove/Physician Liaison Mission Integration
Faculty, Family Medicine Residency Program
CIC responds to Greenwood police department's officers' action
August 26, 2023
Center for Interfaith Cooperation responds to Greenwood Police Department’s Officers’ Actions
The Center for Interfaith Cooperation’s board of directors and staff (CIC) is calling for Greenwood Police Department (GPD) to hold its officers to a higher standard and act in a manner that is respectful and equitable for all.
As an organization, CIC appreciates the 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.
This call to action comes after the Indianapolis Star ran an article on August 23, 2023 (here) that uncovered a lawsuit in which an officer is suing GPD after being suspended from the department for using “vulgar, racist, and homophobic language in instant messages using department equipment.” Additionally, the article states that over 5,000 pages of messages were exchanged between staff members that expressed antisemitic, racist, and homophobic sentiments.
Charlie Wiles, CIC’s executive director states, “The number of messages sent between members of the Greenwood Police Department are deeply disturbing.”
The diversity of Greenwood’s residents continues to grow and includes people of different faiths, immigrants, refugees, and sexual identities and orientations. It is Greenwood Police Department’s responsibility to ensure that its officers remain vigilant in the cultural training of its officers and hold them to a higher standard and act in a manner that is respectful and equitable for all.
Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable.
A printable version of this statement can be found here.
Burma NOW: artist spotlight: Maw Reh
Muscular Angel: Karenni Artist Maw Reh
By Anne Laker
Twenty-five-year-old Maw Reh is a Karenni artist in America, against all odds. One of the first sketches he ever did, at the Arizona middle school where he had just arrived from a refugee camp, was a muscular angel. His drawing skill caught the attention of his teachers. Now, Maw Reh is one of five artists featured in the exhibition Burma Now, presented by Hope for Tomorrow and the Center for Interfaith Cooperation.
Maw Reh is Karenni, one of many ethnic groups in Burma, a country neighbored by China, Laos, India, and Thailand. Burma is a country of people crushed by a continuous civil war and an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Under the military dictatorship, churches, schools and villages are bombed, burned, and set with landmines. In July 2023, the New York Times reported that the calculated attacks to intimidate civilians are only becoming more brutal.
Though Maw Reh is 100% Karenni, he was not born in Burma. He was born and grew up in a Karenni refugee camp bordering Thailand and Burma.
“My father had joined the resistance army and the government cracked down,” he says. “So we fled.” It was in the camp that he first saw people drawing. When he was 11, in 2008, the United Nations resettled his family in Arizona. Like many refugees, he remembers his first day at American school. “It was very nerve wracking,” he says. Art was a non-verbal refuge. After graduating from high school, Maw Reh won a full scholarship to Phoenix College and proudly earned an associate’s degree in fine art.
“Art serves as a speaking method for me to show the world and my own people what is going on,” he says. While refugees strive for good lives in America, the shadow of war never fades for someone born into it.
That is the reason for the art show, says Justin Thang, president and founder of Hope for Tomorrow: “To people in Central Indiana living in peace with the Burmese community, we want you to know: your neighbor’s home country is not safe, their families are still suffering.” A new generation of American-born Burmese, under pressure to assimilate, may be tempted to “forget” the war as it rages still.
Not Maw Reh. In 2021, he traveled back to visit the camp where he was born in Thailand. He found that with the politics of international aid and the Thai government’s new rules, the camps have gotten worse for the Karenni people, with poor education and a lack of clean water, food, and medical supplies. Remembering his own childhood experiences, he was moved to paint oil portraits of people there, documenting their humanity and resilience with dramatic color: a Karenni boy making himself a soccer ball of bamboo, a young Karenni woman in tribal dress leading her people toward hope.
This summer, Maw Reh spent several weeks at a retreat called Art Farm Iowa making the largest painting of his life: a pensive portrait of a Burmese (Karenni) woman adorned with feathers, shells and beads, looming with beauty. “My purpose with art is centered around my journey as a Karenni person and the promotion of our rich culture,” says Maw Reh.
The Indianapolis exhibition Burma Now of which Maw Reh’s work is a part is made possible by a grant from the IU Health Community Impact Investment Fund for a project conceived by Center for Interfaith Cooperation and IU’s Congregational Care Network called Strengthening Healthy Support Networks in Minoritized Communities. The idea is to increase health resources and health outcomes among immigrant groups.
The link between art and mental health, the way it moves people from isolation to connection, is part of the saving grace of bearing witness, for Maw Reh and many others. “I’ve been suffering from depression since high school,” he says. “Art serves as a base to feel relaxed and to find peace in my own world.” He pauses. “Right now, it is less about me … it is my goal to paint my culture and my people and what they are going through.”
Burma Now is on display through September 8, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Please return and bring a friend.
Hope for tomorrow
Imagine coming to a new country as a teenager due to religious persecution in your homeland. Imagine being given a new name, having to learn a new language, and being bullied. You would not want anyone to suffer the way you had. This is part of the story of Justin Thang, founder and executive director of Hope for Tomorrow, an organization devoted to empowering Burmese refugees toward a hopeful, successful future
Hope for Tomorrow is one of CIC’s partners in the “Strengthening Healthy Support Networks in Minoritized Communities” project, funded by a grant from IU Health’s Community Impact Investment Fund. Through this grant, project partners will work to identify ways that members of the Burmese community can access mental health resources, smoking cessation resources, youth mentorship, and more. Although there is no word for “mental health” in the Burmese language, people universally need support.
At a visit last month to the Hope for Tomorrow offices on Indy’s south side, Justin and AmeriCorps member associate Van warmly greeted CIC staff and the project team. The many thriving plants in the office were a visual metaphor for the hope this organization engenders. Justin and Van shared their stories, reflected on their community’s needs, and described the chilling fact of a military war against citizens raging in Burma today, with bombings in Justin’s home state of Falam, in the Chin area of Burma.
We look forward to supporting Hope for Tomorrow with human and financial resources to help Burmese neighbors feel whole and healthy in their adopted Indianapolis home.
Written by: Anne Laker 5.12.2023
CIC Internship Reflection
The Center for Interfaith Cooperation is a local Indianapolis non-profit focused on improving the relationships between different faith groups and creating community between religious groups. The CIC hopes to improve the relationships between different religious communities through mutual exposure, thereby demonstrating the humanity common to all. Over the course of the fall semester, I had a chance to participate in these community building efforts and witness the role of interfaith within our modern world.
The work of the CIC challenged my beliefs of what our community is and who makes it up. On the board alone, some nine different faiths are represented, and even more exist within the Indianapolis community at large. On a personal level, it was a shock to see the religious and cultural diversity in a community I thought I was familiar with. Like many raised from the Midwest, I wasn’t exposed to much cultural or religious diversity growing up. I came to mistakenly assume that our communities lacked any significant cultural, ethnic, or religious diversity. The work of the CIC, through their events like the Festival of Faiths, the Interfaith Banquet, and community religious dialogues, demonstrates the incompleteness of that view: considerable diversity exists within our communities, and merely needs an opportunity for exposure. The CIC highlights and raises the profile of many faith communities that may not otherwise receive such exposure. Within Indianapolis alone, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, and Pagans all call the city their home. Similar diversity can be found in most cities across the country — even if our mainstream culture doesn’t highlight their role.
In a larger sense though, the work of the CIC captures the pluralistic ideal that we aspire to as a society. Far from idle talk about inclusivity and cultural diversity, the CIC activity facilitates tolerance, understanding, and empathy our society aspires for. By introducing people to unfamiliar religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions, they become more empathetic to those groups of people. In this way, a stranger becomes a friend.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway of my time at the CIC and my interfaith experiences is that it demonstrates the humanity in people who, on the surface, may appear dissimilar to yourself. The superficial distinctions of dress, custom, or cuisine can lead people to believe that others are unlike themselves; that nothing is shared in common, and perhaps the “other” isn’t fully human at all. But a simple introduction to someone who seems unlike yourself will illustrate the fiction of this idea; although people may dress differently, eat unique food, or practice a different set of rituals… They are still people. We have a chance to learn this firsthand when we come into contact with these people, providing an opportunity to change and challenge our beliefs. Without these encounters, our beliefs may unfairly calcify and become distorting caricatures of those around us.
Though there may still be ideological or political differences across lines of faith, we come to see the humanity in people of different faith backgrounds than our own — the first step to creating a truly interfaith community and facilitating cooperation amongst all people. The importance and value of pluralism and interfaith collaboration may be best described through a political analog: while Liberals and Conservatives may disagree, both recognize the right of the other to live within the larger community; both are equally endowed to citizenship in a shared national space. Interfaith engagement attempts to cultivate shared citizenship in a common social space — whether a Jain, a Pagan, a Christian, or a Sikh, everyone has a place in the modern world.
Written by Noah Giddings, CIC Fall 2022 Intern
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.