Regina Mustafa: Differing beliefs motivate quest for interfaith harmony
Standing at a downtown Rochester streetlight wearing a black T-shirt with the word "Muslim" printed across the front and back was a first for me. I am used to being identified for my religion since I wear a headscarf, but the T-shirt brings public displays of religion to a whole new level.
Right beside me was a friend wearing another black T-shirt also with bold white letters reading "Atheist." Despite my slight nervous trembling and wishing I had brought along a comfort blanket, I knew that together we were sending a message of acceptance.
Yet, such a bold demonstration of interfaith harmony did not always resonate with those who crossed our path.
Casual dismissals of such efforts lie at the core of our continued racial, religious, economic and sexual identity disparities.
My atheist friend, Jeffrey Jurewicz, was extremely eager to carry out our head turning
Offending others was not the objective. Rather, its main purpose was to show how easy it could be for people of different beliefs to appreciate and accept one another. With local videographer Tyler Aug, creator of The Rochester Experience, behind the camera and backing in support, we stepped off the curb and infiltrated downtown with our avant-garde fashion.
The result: a mixed reaction of support and indifference to our grudgingly honest garb.
A couple sitting on a bench in the Peace Plaza weren't bothered by our message per se, but they told us that religious issues shouldn't matter and they themselves do not even like to think about it. They were pretty much belittling our message. We appeared silly to them.
In a restaurant a server told us he was trying not to look at our shirts. He was not that impressed when we explained their significance.
Along with my atheist ally, I purchased ice cream for a couple sampling the flavors. One look at our shirts resulted in a simple nervous thank you and a quick stepping into the store to avoid further interaction but to collect their pre-paid sweet stuff.
I actually don't blame them. Hey, they could have flat-out refused our generosity, but they accepted it. That's what really matters.
Entering into a coffee shop downtown resulted in much turning of heads, yet yielded incredible conversation and words of appreciation. Young and old, male and female approached us for dialogue.
In a grocery store a man was warmed by our shirts and shared with us his experiences of coming to this country and the trials he has endured. He felt a connection with our shirts. He told us it opens a conversation about many issues, not just religious. I felt honored to hear his story, to enter into his world and gain an understanding of what everyday reality is like for so many like him who came to the U.S. for a better life.
I myself am not an immigrant, but his story matters to me.
After all, if any issue matters to an entire group of people who are our neighbors, shouldn't it matter to the rest of us?
Regina Mustafa, of Rochester, is the founder of Community Interfaith Dialogue on Islam and a member of the Post-Bulletin's Community Editorial Advisory Board.