On the Park 51 Community Center: Why I am committed to building inter-religious relationships

Park 51 Community Center, AKA the “Ground Zero Mosque”, has, today, a single employee: a young woman named Hanadi. During a recent visit, I had the opportunity to hear Hanadi’s story firsthand – her experience as a young, Muslim New Yorker in the aftermath of 9/11. Hanadi spoke of attending a Muslim day school and how within hours of the attacks, individuals had launched pieces of pork and glass beer bottles onto the playground; how one of those glass bottles missed her sixteen year old head by inches. She spoke of being verbally assaulted on the bus when a man told her to “go blow herself up”; of the hate mail she still receives on a daily basis, and of friends who had it much worse than her.

Recently, I heard a story of a developmentally disabled boy, Mitchell, who loves basketball and serves as the manager of his high school team. Although he lacks the motor functions to contribute competitively, in the fourth quarter of the final game, his coach sent him in to play. Though his teammates passed him the ball, he was initially unable to make a basket. When the other team regained possession, a member of that opposing team, Jonathan, called Mitchell’s name, and gently tossed him the ball, with which Mitchell was able to score.

I juxtapose these two stories against each other because for me, they highlight some of the best and some of worst of humanity. In thinking about why I am committed to building relationships with those different from myself, there is a litany of tragic stories I can call to mind that have certainly affected me. I, personally, am the product of four holocaust survivors. I hear stories like Hanadi’s all the time, and they fill me with frustration and compassion. But at the end of the day, these sad stories are not what motivate me to take action. Rather, the stories like Mitchell’s, or like those my grandmother has relayed featuring Christians who risked their lives to help her escape, move me to make the kind of connections that foster real change.

Ultimately, my commitment is driven not by my disappointment in the shortcomings of the human race, but by the profound hope I have in humanity. I am inspired on a daily basis by human kindness, and in particular, when I see strangers helping others who are different from themselves. I am inspired by the fact that human beings are capable of such deep love that transcends all barriers.

My perception is that although we are uniquely capable as a species of acting on more than just self-interest, the prevailing mindset is still one of individual or clan endurance. I want to be an active part of the movement that pushes humanity into a new paradigm: one that recognizes our interdependence, rather than focusing on that which separates us, and I believe this can only be accomplished through the fostering of genuine relationship with the “Other”.

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