Image courtesy of Bill Bolan From left to right: Dr. Janice Thompson, Jasmine Tabron, Sara Ahmed, Umar Alkhaldi, Ida Dumbuya and Dr. Bill Bolan represented King’s at the Sixth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge National Gathering.
Image courtesy of Bill Bolan
From left to right: Dr. Janice Thompson, Jasmine Tabron, Sara Ahmed, Umar Alkhaldi, Ida Dumbuya and Dr. Bill Bolan represented King’s at the Sixth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge National Gathering.

Interfaith programs at King’s were a topic of discussion at an international, interfaith conference. A small group of faculty, staff and students were recently invited to present at the Sixth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge National Gathering.

“It’s a long title,” joked King’s professor of theology, Dr. Janice Thompson.  Thompson attended the huge symposium, hosted by Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., along with staff members Jasmine Tabron, Director of Multicultural and International Student Programs, and Dr. Bill Bolan, Director of the Shoval Center and students Ida Dumbuya, Umar Alkhaldi and Sara Ahmed.

The international conference, with attendees from sixty different countries, was held over two days and boasted dozens of events promoting interfaith engagement and community service works.  The King’s group presented at one such event as part of a large discussion panel which included two other schools, Fisk University and Northeastern University.

“King’s participated as one part of a larger panel,” Bolan said as he explained that each school was given a short period of time to speak about their school’s interfaith programs. “They presented both of our initiatives very well,” Bolan said of the King’s panel members.

It was Thompson’s proposal to talk about King’s unity promoting programs, such as #IAMMUSLIM and the Interfaith Fast that earned King’s a spot at this year’s conference.

“It was a big deal,” Bolan said.

As part of the panel, Alkhaldi spoke about the Interfaith Fast that ended last year’s Hunger for Justice Week.  The idea for the fast was the result of a convergence of need and resources and “a desire to promote more interfaith understanding,” Bolan said. Bolan explained that he and Dr. Thompson seized on an opportunity to blend the international student’s desire to help Syrian refugees with the Hunger for Justice Fast that was already in place last year.

“During that week, we already asked students to give up one meal and have the proceeds go to a larger charity,” Bolan said. “So, we said, why don’t we harness that, and help the refugees, but make it much bigger.”

“We got 250 people to decide to at least give up one meal,” Bolan said. To mark the end of the event, participants were invited to a dinner at which they were encouraged to reflect and engage in conversation about their personal motivations for service.  Bolan described the event as “a nice first-step” toward breaking down walls and building relationships.  Bolan stressed that the point of the fast was “to make connections on the basis of a bond, on an initiative that we all agree on, helping others. We can all agree on that.”

The interfaith forum in Washington also gave students Ida Dumbuya and Sara Ahmed an opportunity to speak about another program.  The creation of Justice Fast that was already in place last year.

Image courtesy of Bill Bolan From left to right: Ida Dumbuya, Sara Ahmed and Umar Alkhaldi.
Image courtesy of Bill Bolan
From left to right: Ida Dumbuya, Sara Ahmed and Umar Alkhaldi.

“During that week, we already asked students to give up one meal and have the proceeds go to a larger charity,” Bolan said. “So, we said, why don’t we harness that, and help the refugees, but make it much bigger.”

“We got 250 people to decide to at least give up one meal,” Bolan said. To mark the end of the event, participants were invited to a dinner at which they were encouraged to reflect and engage in conversation about their personal motivations for service.  Bolan described the event as “a nice first-step” toward breaking down walls and building relationships.  Bolan stressed that the point of the fast was “to make connections on the basis of a bond, on an initiative that we all agree on, helping others. We can all agree on that.”

The interfaith forum in Washington also gave students Ida Dumbuya and Sara Ahmed an opportunity to speak about another program.  The creation of #IAMMUSLIM, was motivated by a need to promote peace and understanding among the diverse faiths of King’s students, staff and faculty.

Tabron explained that the #IAMMUSLIM program began with a survey of our campus’s knowledge of Islam.

 

“We had Sara and another student go around on campus and ask people how much did they know about Islam…there’s not much of an understanding of what Islam is or what Muslims believe,” Tabron said.

Since it was clear that the King’s community needed a better understanding of its Muslim members, faculty, staff and students were then invited to come out and pose questions to a panel which consisted of an imam and both domestic and international Muslim students.

Dumbuya stressed that the purpose of the #IAMMUSLIM panel was “to have a discussion with students and staff, to get an understanding of each other.”

“We talked about a significant time in our lives when we were victimized for being Muslim,” Dumbaya said.  “We used that to spread awareness and start talking to people.”

Dumbuya stressed that the talk was also meant to dispel beliefs that “we can’t get along.” She said, “It showed that Christianity and Islam have a lot of similarities.”

It’s those similarities that Alkhaldi hopes Americans might draw on to break down cultural barriers. Alkhaldi’s personal accounts of being the object of hate illustrate the importance of making those connections.  Since he is a Saudi-Arabian national, he says that he doesn’t always feel welcome in the United States.  The King’s sophomore admitted that off-campus, people have launched obscenities and racial slurs at him and his friends.

“Just three days ago one of my friends was walking around the square and…an old American guy said go home Mexican,” Alkhadi said.

Even on campus where he feels safer and more welcome, Alkhaldi doesn’t always feel included by American students.

“Sometimes I feel I’m welcome, but when they see me after class sometimes they don’t even smile,” Alkhadi said.

“One of the things I think that our students forget is that these international students want to be here,” Thompson said.

Alkhaldi pointed out the lack of relationships he sees between American and international students.

“You’re surprised when you see an American with an Arabic guy,” Alkhadi said. “We have 300 Saudi students here, but most of them don’t have American friends here, not at all.”  He believes a greater effort needs to be made towards understanding each other and accepting each other’s differences.

Dr. Thompson credits the work of students like Alkhaldi with helping the King’s community recognize that the needs of some of its members have been over-looked.

“The coming of the international students made it visible to us that we had a population that we were ignoring,” Thompson said. “We do, and we have had, domestic students whose parents were immigrants, who practice different faiths.  Because there’ve been so few of them, their differences have been ignored. Their chance to tell their stories just gets hidden. But the coming of the international students drew attention that we should hear their stories, we should invite them to speak.”

Dr. Thompson described King’s participation at the conference as being “part of a greater journey” that the King’s community is taking toward cultural and religious unity and understanding.