Jaylani Hussein knew the cramped Minneapolis office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations wasn’t big enough to hold the growing staff much longer.
But it was the threats, hate-filled letters and menacing phone calls directed at the organization that sent him in search of something more than extra square footage.
CAIR held an open house last week to celebrate its new office in Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, a location that offers more space, is closer to clients and, CAIR staff members hope, serves as a sanctuary.
The alliance comes amid heightened fear and uncertainty for local Muslims, as hate crimes against them rise. On Friday, President Donald Trump issued an order temporarily barring refugees from entering the country. Officials with the civil rights organization and the church hope they can work together to undercut discrimination.
“These are our allies,” said Hussein, CAIR’s local executive director. “These are the people that stood with us when we were challenging Islamophobia.”
The Rev. Mike Matson, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church, said the congregation has parishioners from across the political spectrum and strives to be open and “willing to come to the middle … where it’s messy, but safely and with integrity.” He said it’s unfortunate there is such anger and division in the country.
“We wanted to be a model of how people can come together so that we can stop all that rhetoric of hate, name-calling or labeling,” Matson said.
He acknowledged that CAIR has dealt with threats of violence. At least three of the threats in 2015 were serious enough that CAIR reported them to police. Records show they included threats of physical harm and a taunting letter.
But Matson said the congregation is undeterred, because of its history of supporting advocacy organizations and its stances in support of minorities and the gay community. He said Bethany received threats when the church ordained an openly gay pastor and opened its doors to other faith groups. The church has leased space to the Latino worker advocacy group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha. It has invited an African small business to make bread in the kitchen and partnered with a Tunisian chef to provide a free hot soup meal to the surrounding community.
Dianne Holte, president of the Bethany Lutheran Church Council said the group voted unanimously in support of leasing the space to CAIR and building an interfaith partnership. Discussion about partnering with CAIR started last spring, with the Augsburg College Campus Ministry helping make the connection.
“We are honored to have them house their offices within our walls,” Holte said.
At the open house, attended by nearly 60 church members and CAIR supporters, Hussein gave impromptu tours of the new space. He showed off the offices lining the quiet first-floor hallway and explained CAIR’s Muslim civil rights mission.
Hussein said the local chapter deals with employment discrimination, teaches people about constitutional rights, provides training about culture and religion, and “challenges Islamophobia” through education and legal efforts.
JaNaé Bates, communications director of Isaiah, a faith-based advocacy coalition focused on social justice issues, said she was encouraged to hear that CAIR and Bethany Lutheran were joining forces.
She said interfaith groups need to be a “moral voice and a moral compass in this current political and socio-economic climate.”
Bethany and CAIR want to grow their interfaith alliance, but have not mapped out their outreach efforts in the community. So far, they have begun to share volunteers. The church also has invited CAIR and its clients to share in the midday community meal served on weekdays.
Augsburg College Pastor Sonja Hagander, who helped connect Bethany and CAIR said the partnership is crucial to building a multifaith community.
“I get excited about it because it’s part of being neighbors,” Hagander said.
Mustafa Diriye, a community activist who was at the open house, said he’s happy to see CAIR breaking down barriers between different faiths. It’s particularly important at this time when, he said, Trump has used a rhetoric that focuses on dividing people.
“We have to be unified”
“We have to be unified in times of difficulty,” Diriye said. “Our prophet teaches us to work with people.”
But will Muslims feel comfortable going into a Lutheran church?
Yes, said Sheikh Hassan Jama, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Islamic Association of North America. He pointed out that many Muslim refugees have resettled in the United States with the help of churches.
“Culturally and religiously, I don’t see a conflict. ...” Jama said. “This is a good location and it’s convenient for everyone.”