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Interfaith panel discusses priority issues

From top left: Anastasia Wendlinder, Melissa Opel, Jeremy Press Taylor, Naghmana Sherazi, Benjamin Watson


Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Jewish panelists conversed at the January Eastern Washington Legislative Conference on issues and challenges in mobilizing their communities to act.

Melissa Opel, one of three volunteer ministers assistants at the Spokane Buddhist Temple, a Jodu Shinshu Buddhist Temple, sees ongoing prejudices to the Asian American Pacific Islander community reminiscent of the landscape that led to the  incarceration Japanese-American citizens in World War II.

She said this sangha's school of Buddhism in the U.S. addresses prejudice against the Asian community. The temple is sensitive because its founding reverend experienced incarceration. Having the temple shut its religious services in COVID has cut people from a safe haven, especially in today's divisiveness.

 Naghmana Sherazi, of Muslims for Community Action and Support (MCAS) described the Spokane Islamic Center as an "umbrella for Muslims from around the world," with different languages, cultures and foods. Many are cautious in addressing issues because of Islamophobia.

"We prefer to fly under the radar on issues, but as immigrants, we are a welcoming community to newcomers," she said. "With refugees and asylum seekers in our community, we are concerned about social justice.

"When we pray, we stand shoulder to shoulder to show all are equal in the sight of God, but the pandemic has made it difficult to congregate according to our tradition," she said.

Jeremy Press Taylor, a member of the Conservative tradition Temple Beth Shalom and Reform tradition Congregation Emanu-El, is studying for a master's in social work at Eastern Washington University and organizing the Spokane Jewish Coalition for Social Justice.

He said the Jewish community in Spokane affirms that all are made in God's image and deserve human rights. Their community is supporting Afghan refugees coming to Spokane.

Benjamin Watson, his family's seventh generation of preachers in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, said nationally the AME Church is an activist faith community. New to Spokane, he is developing partnerships. For him, top concerns tend to be challenging stereotypes, housing redlining and economic injustices.

"The church is a centerpiece in our community. Christians are to be involved," he said. "We can't separate religion and politics."

Panel moderator Anastasia Wendlinder of Gonzaga University Religious Studies asked about overcoming obstacles and about responding to issues without making waves because of religious, cultural, racial and historical fears.

Benjamin said, "Where there is a small population of African Americans, as here, response is different from in Atlanta, where there are more African Americans so the black voice is heard."

Melissa noted Buddhist teachings get in the way of social justice, but the temple is passionate to assist with low- or no-barrier resources for homeless people.

"Buddhist teachings say we need to change from within. We are ignorant and may make a situation worse if we join or launch a campaign," she said. "From Buddhist teachings, we want to do no harm. In acting, we may not know all the conditions."

While the Christian community understands from Paul that each person needs to be transformed within by renewing their minds, the faith community needs to "ensure wellbeing for all," Benjamin said.

Jeremy said sometimes it's wise to step back and get past polite conversations.

"Different communities may not understand each other, and different people inside our own congregations also need to understand each other," he said. "We need relationships so we can grow together in understanding and strategically engage with others in stronger actions for social justice."

Naghmana said Islam focuses on community and service, so inter-communal relationships are important. In the Spokane Islamic Center, many like her are involved in the community and work with community groups. With MCAS, she helps many connect with people in need.

On the environment, Benjamin said people from African descent, like indigenous people, recognize they are one with the earth and need to care for what they were created from.

"As individuals recognize they are one with the earth, we will see changes," he said.

Melissa said "a main teaching of Buddhism is to free all sentient beings from suffering, so naturally Buddhism is about ecological care. We need to be stewards of the earth. It is what sustains us if we want to breathe and eat."

Jeremy added the Jewish community partners with organizations that support the environment and river cleanup.

Panelists told of partnering.

Naghmana works with the Faith Action Network to inform people on legislative bills, to understand pros and cons on issues, to meet and hold legislators accountable for their votes and to give testimony on bills.

"It's important because we are affected by decisions," she said.

Melissa said the Spokane Buddhist Temple is small, with just 30 members, so it is involved in small actions, such as collecting coats, gloves and hats for homeless people through Jewels Helping Hands.

Benjamin said local AME congregations encourage individuals to be involved in the community, while looking to the wider church leadership to support with acting on national issues.

Jeremy explained: "Coming from an exodus tradition, we want to welcome strangers and are partnering with Refugee Connections. Because of our concern about racism and anti-Semitism, we have a robust relationship with the NAACP Spokane, and share the struggle for racial justice and human rights," he said. "We also work with the Spokane Alliance on affordable housing, health care and just wages, and with the Spokane Human Rights Commission."

"Our tradition offers a clear template on how to treat people. We believe in justice and treating all with dignity in the path to freedom," he said. "No one is free until everyone is free."

Links to all the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference videos.

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February, 2022