Community Blooms through Love Thy Neighbor Initiative

15259498_10153861126245194_3213217001454732711_oLigi Varghese and her 3 year-old daughter clutched bunches of roses in front of the Maryam Islamic Center outside Houston, Texas before Friday prayers on December 2. They, along with a dozen or so community members of various faiths and backgrounds passed out more than 400 flowers to worshippers as they arrived at the mosque.

The attendees alternatively smiled or looked surprised as individuals of the grassroots Love Thy Neighbor initiative handed out single stems along with messages of love and support. Several people held up handwritten signs with statements such as “Houston Loves You.”

15235646_10153861233845194_1190003634274050853_oVarghese, who identifies as an Indian-American Christian, felt spurred to act after she saw a rise in Islamophobia and hate crimes in the media. She reached out to her friend Naheeda Spencer who attends the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land with her family, to see if it would be possible to come out in a show of solidarity with the Fort Bend Muslim community. Imam Taquer Shah welcomed the idea.

Every Friday, hundreds of Muslims in the community – with very diverse backgrounds – come for prayers, and Varghese wanted to give a flower to each person as a symbol of unity. She was supported in this effort by private donors as well as Trader Joe’s, who supplied the long stem roses.

After being invited inside the beautiful mosque for prayers, volunteers and faithful alike listened to Varghese read a statement she had prepared. “We are all so much more similar than we are different,” she said. “We have to start getting to know each other.” This initiative was meant to do that – create awareness in the non-Muslim community, build trust, and forge relationships.

15235784_10153861233990194_3439498266227919922_oThe Maryam Islamic Center, for its part, has been doing community outreach since it was built in 2009, and even before then when it operated out of a trailer further up Sartartia Road. It offers public events such as a carnival annually, coordinates interfaith activities with area churches, and often does fundraising or volunteering for area nonprofits such as the Houston Food Bank.

Deputy John McCoy, one of several Fort Bend County Constables who direct traffic each week as well as during special events has seen this first-hand. “The mosque offers so much and these folks are really part of the community,” he said.

15288677_10153861233835194_3764588772864256438_oEven so, several attendees shared stories of how their children and teenagers have been targeted in school for being Muslim. This is something that troubles Varghese, a mother of a new baby and a preschooler, in particular. “Children aren’t born with hatred. Someone taught them to hate, and never taught them what it was to love.”

This initiative, along with increased connections between mosques and schools, Boy Scout troops, and other organizations are helping to break down these barriers and foster understanding. Varghese hopes small gestures like a flower will show a commitment from other Americans to stand by Muslims in the face of bigotry.

As volunteers cleaned up rose petals outside and carried the food the Maryam Islamic Center gave them, a man in his thirties stopped to shake hands. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “This is what America is all about.”

 

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Mill Woods Artists Collective: Building Community Through Art

In November 2011, a new arts initiative in Edmonton’s SouthEast was born: the Mill Woods Artists Collective.

Jannie Edwards

Canadian Authors Association writer-in-residence and poet, Jannie Edwards, and poet/hip hopper/NDP candidate Rod Loyola (also known as Rosouljah) began organizing monthly meetings to connect artists of all genres, get new projects off the ground, and contribute to the local community.

I’ve been involved with this as much as possible given my other work and life commitments, and am excited about the projects and events that are underway (or upcoming). Right now the main project is being headed up by historian Catherine Cole and video/theatre producer Don Bouzek. They are  collecting the stories of the people and the vision of this community—from the aboriginal presence on this land , to the unique urban plan of the early 1970s, to the waves of immigration that give Mill Woods its sense of vibrant diversity. The first phase of this work will be a six-panel exhibit to be launched at the Mill Woods Canada Day celebrations. The exhibit will then travel around the community to schools and community leagues.

Rod Loyola

Other upcoming events include:

  • Artists Cabaret to be held June 1st at the Southwood Community Hall
  • Public art creation
  • Monthly coffee houses

If you live or work in Mill Woods and are a creative person at any stage of your “artistic journey” (i.e. enthusiasts to professionals are welcome!), please email mwartistscollective@gmail.com. You can also ‘like’ our Facebook page!

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.