Black Churches Burning- Address at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Emerging Leaders Plenary
First I’d like to thank the Parliament of World Religions for inviting me here, I feel honored and humbled to be on this stage given the fact that I am so early in my own journey. I’d like to begin by talking to you about some emerging leaders who lived a long time ago and then I’d like to talk to you about our project, Rebuild with Love, a Muslim-led initiative to help rebuild black churches burned down by arsonists in the south.
I want to throw out some names to you: Faatimah bint Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Ayesha bint Abu Bakr; Mus’ab ibn Umayr, Uthman ibn Affan, and Abu Hurayra. Some of you will recognize these names because these are some of the most well-known companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Most Muslims would have some knowledge of each of these women and men. The reason why I bring them up together as one group is because they were all young when Prophet Muhammad first received his revelation from God. We tend to think of the companions of the Prophet, the men and women who learned from him and helped him spread his message as middle-aged and established, removed from society. But many of his companions were around his age of 40, and many were much younger than that. These giants, as we think of them now, became the way they became because they heard the Prophet speak to his friends and his enemies; those who would secure the success of the message and those who would fight tooth and nail to undermine its spread.
And when we say that they were present when he first received his revelation we should remember what the revelation was. It was a revolution. It brought absolute chaos and dissension, but it also brought the most sublime almost unreasonable brotherly and sisterly love those people had ever seen.
So when we say they were there, it means they saw him preach under the glorious light of the Arabian sun to people like themselves for whom the message had come just in time. It means they saw him threatened with death over and over again by those who found the message entirely inconvenient because of its social justice, egalitarian message.
It means they sat with him while he told them how honored they should feel to be creations of God, honored with intellects, hearts, language and beauty and the ability to know their Lord. It means they sat with him while he questioned them as to the strength of their faith that they could bear to go to sleep at night while their brother down the road lays restless, kept awake by the hollow pain in his stomach from lack of food.
So we have all these young people being taught and nurtured in the ethics and spirituality of the religion, experiencing triumphs and challenges with the community. Then these young people go out and they quite literally change the world with the kind of tenacity and creativity that young people have at their best: nurtured but not sheltered; worldly but not broken.
When I think of examples like these in our current period I think of Razan and Yusor Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat, three Muslims students gunned down in their apartment in North Carolina. All three of whom were deeply invested in the health and welfare of refugees which stands as a testament to the vibrancy and dynamism in the homes they grew up in and the people they grew up with.
Before I say more about the initiative itself, I’d like to speak to the history of targeting black churches. We should keep in mind that attacks on Black churches are a very old form of intimidation in the South especially. Historically used to strike fear into the hearts of Black people. So its results were both physical and psychological damage. Although it is true that arson at religious institutions has decreased over the decades, attacks on black churches today are a haunting reminder of what used to be a norm. And the fact that almost immediately when a black church is burned down before investigators can conclude the cause as arson, many black people make that conclusion for themselves, which speaks to a very real anxiety under the surface that many members of the black community carry with them.
The act of burning black churches is emblematic of the very difficult position black people have historically been in, the tenuousness, the fact of living in between a rock and a hard place; forced to exist in this land, but criminalized and brutalized for trying to create a life worth living in this land. The church is standard infrastructure in so many black communities- it stands tall. So attacking it is akin to attacking its people, breaking it down is akin to breaking the backs of its people.
A church is a community’s attempt to strike roots in the ground, which seems benign enough, but the black church has continually come into conflict because certain segments of society only want black people to live tangentially, on the surface and in a state of anxiety. The church, when it is at its best, is a bed of ideas, a hub of learning, a center out of which thought spreads outward and through the community, a place to reaffirm one’s humanity and worth before God, a place to organize and plan for the future of the community. So when there are people who are uncomfortable with black people finding permanence, then attacking a center of spirit and culture like the church makes total sense.
Some may ask why am I, as a Muslim, so concerned about the black church. I’m concerned because black people are my people and this country is my country, and because I don’t want to live in a world where dark-skinned people are perpetually oppressed, where unsubstantiated hatred of the other, whoever that “other” is, turns violent. When Prophet Muhammad told us to free the slaves he didn’t say only the Muslim slaves, he just said free the slaves because people are born free, should live free and die free.
What’s interesting and perhaps unique about the burning of black churches in America is that the perpetrators of these crimes are people who would likely identify as Christians. So this is actually Christian on Christian violence. That’s a lens through which you could view it at least. In other countries, we might tend to see people of different faiths at odds with each other, or one religious group aggressing against another religious group. However, in this country historically, white on black hate crimes can also usually be viewed as Christian on Christian hate crimes. I think this is important to acknowledge because we don’t tend to think of ourselves as a country that has religious violence. In fact, religious freedom is at the center of how we tell the story about ourselves. But the forced conversion of Native populations in the West to Christianity was often done through religious violence; the forced conversion of enslaved Africans was often accomplished through religious violence. That threat didn’t really go away, it just morphed so that if blacks didn’t preach or testify to the kind of feel-good Christianity they were taught, if they didn’t practice a humility that was more along the lines of despondency, if they didn’t “love” their oppressors, there was, again, fear of retribution. So even people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were sometimes criticized for not being quite Christian enough, which was really just code for not sitting back and taking your oppression.
The first church burning on record happened in 1822, 40 years prior to emancipation. Probably one of the most well known incidents of this was the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four girls. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave the eulogy for those four young victims. During the mid-90s over 100 black churches were burned down.
The campaign that my team started, Rebuild with love, was driven by the principle that all houses of worship are sacred and the often quoted “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The initiative had three parts: 1) to raise awareness of the hate crime afflicted upon these churches 2) to raise money within the Muslim community in order to help the churches rebuild and 3) to develop a connection with these churches built on a foundation of goodwill.
We wanted to send a strong message of support and stand up against hate. We know that fear can be devastating and crippling and that even if someone can dust themselves off from hate it doesn’t mean that feeling of having been targeted or violated will permanently go away. We wanted to contribute to dissipating that fear that those congregations could be feeling by extending a helping hand they didn’t anticipate reaching out to them. We also wanted to make very clear the deep connections between the black community and the Muslim community in that 1/3 of American Muslims are black, in that up to 20% of Africans brought to the Americas to be slaves were Muslim. We wanted to take that message and present it to the Muslim community, and say, listen, this is our problem too. So we fundraised within the Muslim community and gave those fund to the churches, and I’m happy to report that those churches are beginning to rise from the ashes.