- Written by SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN, The New York Times, May 4, 2012
Faiza N. Ali paced across the plaza outside City Hall in Lower Manhattan, consulting a to-do list and juggling the messages on two BlackBerries. How was the turnout? Were the speakers prepped? One minister had already alerted Ms. Ali that he was running late. Another of her colleagues had gone to Borough Hall in Brooklyn by mistake.
On this blustery morning two weeks ago, Ms. Ali was undergoing one of the first tests of her new job as a community organizer, helping to run a rally in support of proposed legislation encouraging more local investment by banks. And by the time the hundred participants had assembled on the City Hall steps, Ms. Ali, a petite figure in a hijab, was standing beside a Catholic priest, holding the edge of a banner from Brooklyn Congregations United.
A Muslim trained by a Jewish agency to work with a coalition largely composed of Christian churches, Ms. Ali is not just the poster child for monotheism. She forms part of a vanguard of faith-based community organizers who have been selected in part for their religious devotion and then trained to cross denominational lines in pursuit of common cause.
“There’s a healthy tension,” as Ms. Ali, 27, put it, “when I want to talk about an issue campaign and the first line of questioning I get is, ‘What’s that thing you’re wearing and where are you from?’ I kind of anticipated those questions. It was a reminder of how few people have met Muslims. I can answer their questions and address the stereotypes head on and then do the work together. It’s created a different sense of community for me.”
The Rev. Michael Perry, the pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church in Brooklyn, has watched and listened as Ms. Ali has interacted with congregants who are primarily Haitian and Mexican immigrants. Just the other night, she taught a lesson on advocacy to half a dozen women from the church.
“Here are all these people who look different, whose faith experience is different,” said Father Perry, 69. “And she’s holding them together with an idealism that’s based in her religious belief but in no way conflicts with theirs. They’re learning from this young Muslim woman how to find a voice that will speak truth to power.”
What Ms. Ali has learned is the possibility of bridging the deep gap that the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war, among other causes, carved between Muslims and non-Muslims in America. Her personal story is one of gaining, losing and regaining faith in a tolerant, polyglot society.
Born and raised in Midwood, Brooklyn, to immigrant parents from Pakistan, Ms. Ali grew up as a die-hard Mets fan and a “band geek” playing flute at Madison High School. Her certainty that the larger world accepted her came to a crashing end in the wake of Sept. 11. Two days after the attacks, Ms. Ali and a younger sister were insulted and roughed up while buying milk at a local grocery. Then, in the fall of 2006, when Ms. Ali was starting her senior year at Pace University in Manhattan, two copies of the Koran were flushed down campus toilets.
Such events propelled Ms. Ali into involvement with the Muslim Students Association and then a full-time job with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. There, she put in 70-hour weeks dealing with controversies including the so-called “ground zero mosque,” which inspired a national landslide of anti-Muslim speech. She resigned last year, utterly depleted.
One experience from her years at the council, though, did inspire happier memories. It was a campaign to add two Muslim holy days to the New York public school calendar, and it was one occasion when Ms. Ali sought and collaborated with allies from outside the Muslim orbit, including union leaders and local politicians.
So when she heard last spring about a program to train faith-based community organizers, her initial plan to take a hiatus evaporated. The program was being run by Bend the Arc, a group formed by the merger of two liberal Jewish agencies, Jewish Funds for Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Its goal was to increase the impact of the religious left in policy debates by developing organizers who, in turn, could develop congregational leaders.
“Without talking to people of faith,” said Alan van Capelle, the chief executive of Bend the Arc, “you can’t organize on issues like affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage, access to affordable health care, immigration reform. The people who have organized around social justice have ceded people of faith to the conservatives. But we think people of faith are on our side. It’s just that they’re not organized, and they don’t have a megaphone.”
His appeal spoke directly to Ms. Ali’s combination of Muslim devotion and progressive politics. She had always taken her mottos from Frederick Douglass (“Power concedes nothing without a demand”), Howard Zinn (“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”) and a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart”).
Ms. Ali competed with about 300 applicants for 26 places in the Bend the Arc program. (In 2010, the program’s first year, 16 people were accepted.) Her colleagues included Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, other Muslims, a Seventh-day Adventist and a rabbi. Their training incorporated a monthly session of scriptural study, which was Ms. Ali’s first exposure to critical analysis of religious texts.
After six months of residency with Brooklyn Congregations United, Ms. Ali was hired full time by the coalition in March. Our Lady of Refuge has become her de facto office. “The other night, I told her she was doing a fabulous job,” Father Perry said, “and she didn’t know how to handle it. I told her to just say ‘thank you.’ But she’s not in this for the compliments.”
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