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Faiths find similarities at tea for peace

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LORAIN — In an effort to dispel myths surrounding Islam and promote acceptance among different faiths, First Lutheran Church in Lorain hosted Teatime for Peace on Thursday evening.

The event was the 20th gathering, first organized by Isam Zaiem, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and April Stoltz, a member of Westshore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, in response to President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric during the 2016 primaries, Zaiem said.

“We decided to have a gathering at the Unitarian Church in Rocky River, expected 60 people and ended up with 120 and people loved it and it’s basically people from different faiths, different backgrounds can come together around a table and talk about their faith and how we share our humanity and stuff like that.”

Since that first gathering, the group has held tea times throughout Northeast Ohio, in Mosques, churches, universities and National Council of Jewish Women. Thursday’s was the first in Lorain. First Lutheran Church Pastor Rosy Rivera reached out to the Council, requesting an event in the International City.

“In this day and age and this culture right now, there’s so much division and I wanted an opportunity for this community to really have an opportunity for dialogue about something, I think, is really divisive in this community and that is the stigma behind the Muslim faith,” Rivera said.

The event offered attendees the chance to have a roundtable with members of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, asking questions to break stereotypes or stigmas surrounding each — especially those around Islam. Prior to the “sharing sessions,” speakers focused on the similarities within each religion and how they transcend differences.

Imam Paul Hasan, a local activist, said similarities people of all faiths face are struggles within their communities, including the opioid crisis and youth violence. He urged attendees to look for holistic solutions to holistic problems, before reading the opening prayer of the Quran in English.

The sharing sessions were guided by provided questions, with the first asking participants to tell the story of their family’s history in the United States — how did they immigrate, where were they native-born, etc. From there, groups could either continue to follow five other scripted questions, ranging from values and traditions to promoting diversity in race, religion and ethnicity, or branch off on their own.

Between the two sharing sessions, Tony Whitehouse, of Teatime for Peace, gave a personal reflection. Whitehouse said at first he had a prejudice against Muslims, based on stereotypes he saw on TV and in other media. But, after President Trump announced the “Muslim ban” on travel last year, he said he reached out to a local Mosque and eventually got in contact with Council on American-Islamic Relations to learn more about the faith.

“After the last election, I realized that I didn’t even know one Muslim,” Whitehouse said. “I’d been angered by the Muslim ban and thought it was just singularly un-American. It infuriated me. … I began to read about Muslims and Islam, I began to read the Quran, which I found is not a book filled with hate, as I had been told by many.”

In closing, Amir El Hajj Khalid Samad and Ivana Zajkovska answered questions and further explained some misconceptions about Islam. Zajkovska spoke on the personal choice to wear a hijab or head scarf, and what it means — for her — as part of being a Muslim. 

Samad, similar to Hasan, touched on violence in the communities and the relationship he had with the Lutheran church, as well as the similarities the communities are now facing.

“We all came over here in different ways, different ships, now we’re in the same boat and so consequently what are we looking at and what are we working on to try to make sure that this legacy continues?” Samad said.

For Zaiem, along with other organizers, the takeaway was simple — everyone is human.

“Instead of focusing on the differences, we look for the commonality or human character and how we can relate to each other and how we can bring civility and understanding and caring to our community at large,” he said.

Contact Carissa Woytach at 329-7245 or cwoytach@chroniclet.com.

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