Just a few feet from the White House, a “White House Mass for Muslim refugees” was organized recently to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community. This Mass organized by the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a local advocacy group in Washington D.C. brought together a cross-section of DC’s residents. There were signs that read “Christians supporting Muslims” or “No ban, No Wall” “We are ALL Immigrants” “Our huddled mass welcomes your huddled mass” and “Refugees welcome”. This crowd of people brought together public-spirited Catholics, Muslims and others, with a passion for social justice. Pope Francis’s social justice mission was on display for all to see. The cold wintery evening was not a deterrent for these faithful Catholics.
The crowd at the Mass comprised of mostly Catholics who were from a few parishes in the city, there were a few Muslims (Hijabi women) and Muslim men as well. The diverse crowd was a reflection of both the congregation and also the people who live in and around DC, a melting pot of ideas and people who are not easily divided.
As we were waiting for the Mass to begin, some women exchanged recipes for cookies and two four-year-olds ate their cereal, the cold wintery evening was full of hope and promise. As the Mass began, one could see the White House in the background, just half a block away. This gathering, right in front of the residence of the President of the US was symbolic as it was uplifting. The opening hymn that was sung was: “Let us build a house where love can dwell/and all can safely live/a place where saints and children tell/how hearts learn to forgive.”
While the Mass organized by this group is a reflection of the Catholic Church’s openness, one which I have witnessed myself; there are indications that the broader American public is also shifting its attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. As Shibley Telhami points out in his article for the Brookings Institution, perhaps this is also a reflection of the bigger shift – towards a more positive view of Islam in the American mainstream. This shift has been along party lines, with not much shift occurring among Republicans. Despite this shift being primarily from the Democratic Party side (favorability of Muslims went up from 55 to 66 percent) points out Telhami, there is reason to believe that this will last and have a long-term impact, he suggests.
I joked with my wife, who is a Catholic that I am perhaps more Catholic than her (it was my idea to go to the Mass), I realized that perhaps the most meaningful and effective response to the racist and discriminatory laws and practices can come from quarters that are steeped in America values. Religion, being one of the most ‘American’ of institutions is one way to do it; despite the problems that come with religion in the public sphere. The model that Pope Francis has advocated, of using social justice as a framework to rally the faithful is one that seems to have worked wonders and is still bringing people together to advocate for causes that are universal.
This universality of suffering was alluded to, during the Mass. As Father Quinn, who conducted the Mass reminded the congregants, the history of Catholics in the US is one of being a persecuted group. Whether it was the Irish who came to the US, or the Italians who sought refuge in the urban ghettos of New York, the Catholics know a thing or two about being discriminated, he pointed out. The Catholic Church has been at the forefront of advocating for the rights of refugees. Especially given the urgency with which the recent refugee crisis has emerged, the Church and its institutions have stepped up in ways that have been both effective and inspiring. Catholic Relief Services, one of the larger Refugee resettlement agencies has also been at the forefront of advocating for the rights of refugees.
To me, as an immigrant, this gathering demonstrated not only the best of what faith-based action can do; but also, that the spirit of democratic participation is alive and well. Perhaps this was also a demonstration of faith in action, while maintaining a healthy distance from the state.