“Moving From Walls to Bridges” – Dr. Sarah Sayeed’s remarks at today’s Interfaith Prayer Breakfast in Lincoln, NE

Moving From Walls to Bridges: Finding Common Ground for Community Transformation

Lincoln, NE, April 30, 2015, 31st Annual Mayor’s Interfaith Prayer Breakfast

Greetings of peace to each of you, Assalamu’alaikum

I am truly humbled and honored to be with you on this special day for the communities of Lincoln. Your annual interfaith breakfast in partnership with Mayor Beutler demonstrates your commitment to the work of moving from walls to bridges. Your gathering reminds me of a verse from the sacred text of the Quran, a sentiment that I know is echoed in all of our religions, in which God tells us that it is He who has created “us from male and female, into nations and tribes, so that we learn to know one another.[1]

God’s purpose in making us different is not for us to live behind walls of division or hatred, but His Purpose that we walk the bridge across differences, to meet, greet, and learn from each other. While our differences sometimes feel like the Biblical Tower of Babel, because we struggle to understand one another, I believe our faiths also offer us a positive lens to see our humanity and diversity as blessings from God, to treasure and harness this diversity in the service of our communities and for our nation.

Today, we came together as people of diverse religions or of no religion, some of us are strong in our faith, some of us are questioning aspects of our faith, and others of us are secular humanists. We climbed over walls between and within religions but also walls between the realms of religion and secular governance. We are actively engaging the question of what it means to be a nation that privileges no religion but that respects all religions. I think we should give ourselves a round of applause and a round of applause to those who organized this event.

We have also come together over food- which we have found at the Interfaith Center of New York is a great connector, a simple way to act on the shared faith values of hospitality and gratitude for God’s gifts in our lives. The celebrated cookbook author and teacher of American cuisine, James Beard noted that “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” Eating together reminds us about our human bond and our shared basic need for food and nourishment.

An additional common ground today is your shared love and appreciation for Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska and our country. You also have shared concerns about the reduction of poverty and how to ensure stability for Lincoln’s children. You seek to leverage your diversity as an asset to address community needs. And as bridge builders, we all know that this diversity grows daily.

By 2050, America is expected to be a majority minority nation, when more than 50% of the population will be comprised of what are today minority backgrounds. That dazzling diversity, with all its complexity and challenges, is already showing up at here in Lincoln. The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research notes that in 2050, the population of Hispanics will account for 24% of Nebraska’s population, compared to 9% in 2010. A friend of mine who works for Church World Service informed me that Lincoln is also home to refugees from various countries, including Burma, Iraq and Iran, and is expected in the future to receive Congolese and Somalis. Lincoln’s religious diversity includes Bahai’s, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Mormons, Muslims, Presbyterians and many others. Since change is the only thing that is constant in our lives, this diversity of religion and denomination is also likely to shift over the years.

To borrow from the fields of construction and engineering which I think Lincoln knows well, I believe our shared work, over the next few decades, is to re-examine the structural integrity and the aesthetic appeal of roads and bridges we have already built, and to strengthen & beautify them. We also need to look at existing walls that block individuals and communities from meeting one another, and build new bridges to connect them. Ultimately, we need every bridge because bridges will help Lincoln, Nebraska, and America continue to be places where each of us, majority and minority, can live a life of dignity, equality, freedom and happiness.

This bridge construction, assessment and reconstruction is not just for experts but needs all of us. And as we all know, the tangible structures we build in our external world are very much a reflection of the inner worlds of imagination, ideas, thoughts and feelings. Rumi, the great Sufi poet and Muslim philosopher and legal scholar has said, “we are the mirror as well as the face in it.” Since our society reflects who we are, I believe our outer work always benefits from an ongoing practice of looking inwardly.

It requires a certain mindset and habits of the heart to build bridges and to walk over them. When I speak of mind and heart, I am referring to what we have as individuals, as well as the collective heart and mind of a community that becomes visible when a critical mass of people hold the same values and commitments over time. So what are these values and commitments that will help us to build bridges of connection?

As a person of faith, my own bridge building values include empathy and compassion. In the mid 1970’s, as an immigrant child, I boarded a flight that brought me from India to New York City. In the heat of August, my father picked up my mother, my sister and I at JFK International Airport and took us to our new apartment in the Bronx. For me, the paved roads of America, the ability to sit in a car, and life in a five story building with glass windows and screens that kept out mosquitoes was luxurious, compared to what I had left behind. Yet as I grew older and traveled outside my neighborhood, into the privilege of attending an elite girls high school with financial aid, my understanding of luxury shifted.

Many of my classmates lived in much higher buildings with doormen, and went to country homes on the weekend. They returned with the most beautiful suntans after summer and winter vacations. My own daily commute went from the upper East Side of New York into one of America’s poorest Congressional districts. The gap in wealth was huge. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the Bronx was also ravaged by arson, which left buildings in my neighborhood uninhabited for years.

I used to wonder why my father chose to settle us in this neighborhood, especially since many of his friends lived farther away, in places like Long Island and Queens. They rarely came and visited us. I am sure they wondered why we didn’t live in a “better neighborhood,” a code term people use to describe places where we live side by side with people who look and think like us, and those who are different know immediately that they don’t belong, without us ever saying a word.

Looking back, I think my father’s choice was radical because he sought to live within his means- whereas many of us give into the temptation to extend far beyond what we can afford. I also see that my father made an ethical and moral choice, to live in a racially and socioeconomically segregated neighborhood. Living side by side with people who by American standards were under the poverty line, we were able to see first-hand what life was like for people with hardships, people for whom the system did not work. My father made the choice to build a bridge instead of living behind a wall.

In sharing with you the story of my father, I am not necessarily calling for us to integrate our neighborhoods, though I believe that would help us greatly. What I want to highlight is that our country, its institutions and its inequalities are actually reflections of what is in our hearts. Many of us are well meaning, and we genuinely care for people who are in need. Yet more often than not, we blame poor Americans for their lot. If only they worked harder we say. We stigmatize and look down on the use of food stamps, which in turn leads people to feel ashamed when they are poor, and they shy away from asking for help.

To uplift communities in need, we must be able to walk in their shoes, to really spend time with people who are impacted by economic hardships. We need to see people as fully human, with their own needs, dreams and hopes. We need to invest the time to listen, and to empower people to find solutions that work for their families and their neighborhoods. We need polices, programs and services that affirm human dignity.

Bridge builders must have a commitment to asking and answering soul-searching questions. Many of us struggle to understand how to fix large systems that seem to be inefficient and inflexible. As Americans, we are beginning to understand that our criminal justice system needs reform, and that our education system is more likely to provide a quality education to children living in wealthy neighborhoods than in poorer ones. We have collected and analyzed data that shows how low income neighborhoods don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables at the same rates as wealthy neighborhoods. This in turn impacts the health of residents. Less healthy people, are in turn, less able to perform at work, keep a steady job, and earn a steady income.

While it is critical for us to find the means to break out of these cycles of deprivation, I also believe it is time for us as Americans to go deeper, and to talk about how we, all of us, have consciously and unconsciously created these systems of inequality over many decades. We daily participate in and benefit from systems that privilege some Americans over others. Where did the inequality start? How did our neighborhoods become so divided? How do we choose to live in the neighborhood we live in? As citizens of a democracy and as people of faith, we must have the courage to ask honest questions of ourselves, questions that risk bringing forward our own culpability. It is fully resonant with our own democratic process to say that we are all responsible.

Sometimes asking hard questions also means challenging our existing interpretations of religion, because it too has been used to justify attitudes that demean others. Religion has also been used to bolster structures of inequality, including by class, gender and race. We use religion to exclude one another. We have to take our questions beyond our personal space into the public square, and encourage a collective soul-searching.

In our Catholic-Muslim Joint Action partnership, community members in Harlem from historically African American congregations recently came together to dialogue about the intersection of racism and religion. They heard from their priest and imam about how theology has been manipulated in each tradition to reinforce racist attitudes and practices, and the ways in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X harnessed the liberating principles of Christianity and Islam in the service of racial equality. Community members spoke openly about their personal experiences of racism, as well as what gives them reason to hope and to stay with their religions. Our dialogue is one small example of a bridge we built to enter one another’s communities. It required us to be honest and self critical.

Collective soul searching and asking hard questions inevitably will meet resistance from people around us. We have also learned at the Interfaith Center of New York that there are people in every community who prefer the security of walls. But those who build walls also merit our empathy and compassion, because we each carry a part of us that is afraid of meeting difference, and we are each afraid of the change that comes from such an encounter. An example from New York City is that well-meaning parents initially resisted interfaith dialogue and action between Catholic and Muslim teens. We don’t fully understand all the reasons, but part of that wall was definitely made up of post 9/11 mistrust of Muslims.

What the youth did in response demonstrates another commitment that I believe bridge builders must have, which is the commitment to action in the face of odds. These high school students lovingly insisted to their parents that interfaith social action was exactly what Jesus would want us to do. By speaking respectfully, in the language of our faith teachings about justice, these youth were able to transform their parents’ resistance to change. It was a small example of how we can speak truth to power and that even those who resist change can listen and can change their minds. Thus, empathy and compassion are needed not only when we speak with people we wish to uplift, but also when we build dialogue with people who seem to be invested in keeping things the same.

There is much in our faith traditions to help us in the work ahead, whether in Lincoln or in New York. Empathy and compassion are core values. There are also others, and I have tremendous hope in the power of interfaith dialogue. Sharing these rich and uplifting teachings will help us we stay energized and committed to the work ahead. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This work takes time, patience, commitment. It takes love for one another.

Those in the room who are familiar with theories of behavior change, we know that intention to change is an important precursor to action. We have already set our intention to reduce poverty and homelessness and improve education and health care. Setting our intention towards togetherness, and cultivating the values and commitments of bridge builders will help us to do great and important work together. I pray we will be successful, for the future of Lincoln’s children and for America’s children depends on the work we do today.

Thank you.




[1] Quran Surah 49:13