They would soon be facing a life-threatening winter. Overwhelming violence in Syria had forced residents from their homes with minimal belongings. Several thousand Syrian refugees were now relocated in a U.N.-sanctioned camp at Jordan. Without the warm clothing they left behind, they might not survive the harsh conditions coming their way.
This was in August of 2016. A colleague of mine, Nimrah, had just returned from providing humanitarian aid at the refugee camp through an organization called Helping Hand for Relief and Development. Back in our hometown of College Station, Texas, Nimrah sat across a table from me in a coffee shop, sharing pictures and stories about her good work in Jordan.
When her testimony shifted from joy to worry for her newfound friends there, I knew we had to do something.
We organized a “Winter Clothing and Toys Drive for Syrian Refugees.” Empty refrigerator boxes were placed at Nimrah’s mosque and at the church where I serve. Within days, people in our respective congregations made sure those boxes were full.
But it wasn’t enough.
Local media picked up the story. People flocked to the mosque and the church with armloads of coats, clothes, and toys. Bags of donations quickly engulfed the overflowing refrigerator boxes.
Before everything was delivered to Houston where it would be shipped to Jordan, Nimrah’s community and mine met to sort and box everything. When representatives of Helping Hand arrived on the scene with a refrigerator truck, Muslims and Christians formed an assembly line, packing the vehicle with boxes of humanitarian aid. That particular Sunday afternoon happened to be the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
Many of the people who brought donations to the mosque and the church said, “This is so refreshing. It makes me want to do more.” Now, it’s possible that the outpouring of support occurred simply because no other local effort to help Syrian refugees had been provided. But I tend to believe that the uncommon partnership between Muslims and Christians is what attracted the attention of so many individuals who otherwise might have withheld their donations. Collaborative effort is not only refreshing, but essential in the battle for human dignity.
It is noble for Christian churches to be outraged about the school to prison pipeline that convinces many young people of color that their futures lie in a mass incarceration system where the Thirteenth Amendment still permits them to live under a legal yoke of slavery. It is virtuous for churches to be concerned about bathroom bills, such as S.B. 6 in Texas, that not only do nothing to protect people from being assaulted in public bathrooms, but also exacerbate transphobic violence. It is honorable for churches to be saddened by heightened Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, burned mosques and desecrated Jewish cemeteries in our country. But it’s not enough.
When outrage, concern, and sadness fail to connect with the lived experience of our neighbors, we are doing more to protect our privilege to be outraged, concerned, and sad than to enact transformative change. When mostly white churches reach out to their county NAACP and African American congregations, perspective is brought to privilege. When churches contact their local PFLAG or Pride Community Center, queer liberation is brought to heteronormative conformity. When Christian communities connect with Jewish and Islamic communities, dialogue interrupts assumptions.
Each collaborative effort opens our eyes more fully to the experience of our neighbor, which is an articulation of one’s humanity. This expanded vision inspires us to do more while acknowledging our limitations, as well as to build more partnerships across the lines that typically divide us. And, as Jesus said, the world will know we are his disciples when they see how we love one another. So it is that this world will be inspired by our collaborative work—work that proclaims every human being is worthy of dignity, respect, and love—so much that they might join this spiritual movement.
On June 12th, at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, a mass shooting claimed the lives of 49 people, all of whom were gay or allies, most of whom were Latino/a. The shooter was Muslim. A communitywide vigil was held at our church. Nimrah spoke at that event:
My heart hurts because the media is creating an “us-versus-them” mentality. But it’s not “us-versus-them.” Today and always I will stand with the members of the LGBTQ community, not because what was done is my fault or the fault of someone in my faith, but because I am a human being; because solidarity, love, compassion are greater than hate. We are one people, so let us all, in good conscience and human solidarity, reject this extremist narrative and assert our shared humanity and mutual respect for the sanctity of all human life.
Here was a Muslim speaking from a Christian pulpit to a diverse congregation united in its bereavement over the murder of queer people in another state. There was power in the intersectionality of that moment. It helped us see clearer—clearer than we ever could from our own insular traditions and faith backgrounds—that we are all God’s beloved; that everyone needs love to survive; and that none of us can provide those acts of good will toward our neighbors without each other’s help.
Jesus teaches us to love one another, yes; and by this the world will know that we are his followers. But we cannot love one another without one another. Collaboration across denominational, religious, and cultural divisions holds us accountable to a mutual definition of “one another” being all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from. It also keeps us from burning out in that perpetual pursuit of what we Christians constantly pray for: “Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.”
Gone are the days of one congregation doing good works all by itself. That is noble, virtuous, and just, but it’s not enough. Without intentional collaboration, the Christian Church will keep showing up late to the battle for human dignity. And haven’t we shown up late for that enough already?