A large canopy tent stood Monday afternoon in a lot adjacent to Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1905 W. Wisconsin Ave. Under it stood rows of metal chairs, carefully spaced six-feet apart in every direction. A forest of red, white, and blue yard signs lined the street urging passersby, VOTE!
The scene was set for the Interfaith Candlelight Rally Kick Off for Early Voting. On the eve of Wisconsin’s two weeks of early voting (Oct. 20 – Nov. 1), a diverse group of religious and cultural organizations brought together faith leaders to “light up Milwaukee” and inspire their communities to vote.
The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance lent their support to the effort as sponsors of the event.
Other sponsors included MICAH (Milwaukee Intercity Congregations Allied for Hope), Souls to the Polls, League of Progressive Seniors, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, Voces de la Frontera, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Congregation Shir Hadash, Hmong American Women’s Association, MASH, Milwaukee Area Labor Council, Progressive Baptist Church, SEIU, Tikkun Ha-lr and Urban Underground.
Redeemer Lutheran Church served as host. “Redeemer is a great location and we like to host. We pride ourselves on our hospitality,” said Pastor Lisa Bates-Froiland in an interview after the event. “To remind people to vote the day before early voting starts is so close to our mission. As citizens, we are called on to live out our responsibilities as we can.”
By 5:30 p.m., when the rally started in earnest, amid a chill in the air and light snow, more than 150 people of multiple creeds and cultures joined together to share music and speeches, and to raise candles in celebration of the right to vote.
Muslims value the right to vote
Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition President Janan Najeeb spoke about why it is particularly important for Muslims to vote in the 2020 election.
“As a Muslim American, I already voted because the values of our country are at risk. On January 27, 2017, the first thing this administration did in office was to launch an attack against Muslims and refugees by instituting the Muslim Ban, closing our nation to a multitude of Muslim countries and refugees fleeing war zones and genocides. They were denied simply because of their faith,” she said.
Janan Najeeb, President of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition
“I already voted because my children deserve to feel proud and deserve to be safe. They should not hear their faith being maligned by their government leaders.”
She also said she voted because she is concerned about the future of the Affordable Care Act and access to healthcare for millions of people, climate change, management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rights of American citizens to vote who are endanger of being disenfranchised.
“I want a leader that does not coddle dictators, oppressors, occupiers and arrogant supremacists,” she said to applause from the crowd. “I want a leader that upholds human rights and justice and holds one standard for the world.
“I already voted because I believe our country is enriched by it’s diversity, and I believe the only two Muslim Congresswomen in office deserve to have a voice and be safe, not threatened because they are Muslim.”
In a statement about the importance of the vigil, Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance President Will Perry said that for Muslims, voting is “worship in action. Our engagement in the political process brings value.
“As Muslims, Islam instructs us to do what is good, to be good neighbors, and to be of good character. When Muslims stick to our values and use them as a tool when making decisions, the outcome is ultimately good.”
The most diverse voter turnout in American history
Interfaith Executive Director Pardeep Kaleka shared a personal story about his parents immigrating to America from a small, rural village in India to go on to learn English, pass a test on the civil process and earn citizenship. “They instilled in me this promise of engaging in the civic process and voting, and making a better life for themselves.”
Kaleka noted that this election year is unique in Milwaukee. “This year, 2020, you will see thousands of Sikh families being able to vote in Wisconsin. This year you will see the largest number of Hispanic voters, Arab American voters, Asian American voters, Muslim Americans, Black Americans. In short, 2020 will represent the most diverse voter turnout in American history.
Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance representative, Ameena Yusuf.
Interfaith Executive Director, Pardeep Kaleka.
“While this fills me with joy and hope, it is not without its own particular challenges. Our country is having an existential crisis – whether to be exclusive or to be inclusive, opened or closed, united or divided. Is it for the rich or is it for the poor? Is it for the few or is it for the masses? Is this country a truly representative democracy?”
Building power with the vote
The Early Vote Candle Vigil developed as the interfaith community rallied to support an effort launched by Souls to the Polls, an organization that unites ministers and their congregations in Milwaukee’s central city to strengthen the voting power of the Black community.
Souls to the Polls was established in 2013 and has a leadership team of central city ministers committed to building an army of 100,000 voters. It views a strong voting bloc as the key factor in pressing state and local leaders to address the major issues facing African American families, including education, clean water, economic development, gun violence and governmental transparency, according to its website.
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More than 200 Wisconsin religious leaders from many different houses of worship, including mosques, synagogues, temples, and churches, have signed the Faith Leaders Covid Safety Pledge, committing to do all in their power “to keep our congregations and communities healthy and safe in the midst of this pandemic.” The pledge asserts that, though the faith leaders are of “varying practices and theologies, all our traditions hold life as sacred and believe the imperative to protect and preserve life outweighs all other considerations.”
On Thursday, October 15, the organizers held a press conference with Madison and Milwaukee faith leaders to announce their continuing commitment to limiting public gatherings, despite the importance of such gatherings to religious practice. Governor Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Health’s October 6 directive stated that all public gatherings be limited to “no more than 25 percent of a room or building’s total occupancy.” However, houses of worship were exempted from the order.
The faith leaders went further than the governor’s directive by pledging to “steward the health of all by prioritizing remote worship and other activities until this crisis has passed.”
Last Thursday, on the same day as the faith leaders’ press conference, Sawyer County Judge John Yackel issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the governor’s statewide order, after the Tavern League of Wisconsin filed suit. A hearing was held on Monday, October 19th to decide the issue.
Evers had issued the October 6 order because Wisconsin is a now a covid hot spot, seeing a daily increase in coronavirus cases. Nearly 1,600 people in Wisconsin have died from covid-19.
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, executive director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice and one of the organizers of the pledge and press conference, said faith leaders had been meeting regularly by phone with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes since March, when the rapid rise in covid cases resulted in a statewide lockdown. Rabbi Margulis said the group had been “sharing our deep concerns as faith leaders about the alarming rise of covid cases” in the State.
Most congregations, said Rabbi Margulis, were already meeting virtually or in small groups. But given the continuing rise in cases, the faith leaders decided further action was necessary and created the pledge, which can be found online at Faith Leaders Covid Safety Pledge.
Rabbi Margulis said that more than 220 leaders of faith groups have already signed the pledge, “Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan – everybody.”
At last Thursday’s press conference, Janan Najeeb, president of Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and director of the Islamic Resource Center, and Dr. Mushir Hassan, vice president of Medical Affairs at Ascension Elmbrook Memorial Hospital, were among the speakers.
“It’s sad that we have to be here today to affirm the sanctity of life,” said Mrs. Najeeb. “I really doubt that there is a faith on earth that does not place the sanctity of life above all other concerns.”
Mrs. Najeeb said that “this pandemic has touched every country on Earth, whether rich or poor, and every corner in every city,” and that this “should be cause for us to come together and unite in our common humanity.”
She commented on the eagerness of some to return to “normal life” by saying, “We can always make up for missed social events and gatherings. Businesses and livelihoods can be rebuilt. . . Even a school year can be repeated. But you can never replace your child or your parent. Nor can you replace someone else’s child or their parent.”
After affirming that “social distancing, wearing masks, and staying home unless it’s necessary to leave is not a matter of personal choice, it’s an ethical duty,” Mrs. Najeeb said, “As people of faith, we know our personal desires take second place to the welfare of humanity. We know that entitlement and arrogance are not attributes of the faithful. The vulnerable have an ethical claim on all of us to promote their well-being. We trust in God, yes. But God demands reason and common sense.”
Finally, Mrs. Najeeb announced, “The Muslim community joins the pledge to do everything in our power to keep ourselves, our families, neighbors, our fellow citizens, and even those we do not know, safe. This is a shared fight, and we will emerge as a more resilient society.”
Dr. Hassan, as the only medical expert at the press conference, emphasized the practical, scientifically validated steps to combating the pandemic on the part of individual citizens. “We know the pathway forward to stay safe,” he said. “The pathway forward is to be careful about masking, careful about social distancing, careful about handwashing and really limiting our indoor contacts when at all possible.”
Dr. Hassan was instrumental in helping Wisconsin mosques “frame . . . our re-opening policy,” prioritizing “the safety of our communities . . . while still being sensitive to the data that we have about how disease spread is doing in our state.”
All of the faith leaders present emphasized the importance of community in forming their decisions.
Rev. Sonja Ingebritsen, a pastor at Community of Hope, UCC in Madison, emphasized that “religious liberty is not threatened by health mandates” that seek to limit indoor gatherings and promote the wearing of masks and socially distancing.
“In fact,” she said, “many of our faith communities have found this to be a time of deepening spiritually.”
However, Rev. Ingebritsen said, “I won’t pretend these measures have been easy. But we understand that they are necessary. We faith leaders are here this morning because our calling is to care for our neighbor.”
While some people continue to say they are untouched by the pandemic, Rev. Willie Brisco, president of WISDOM, said, “I have suffered personally because of this pandemic. I have watched an aunt die over the phone. I have seen ten personal friends perish where I couldn’t attend their funerals. . . I couldn’t be near their side. I couldn’t even be near their families.”
In Wisconsin, Rev. Briscoe said, “We’re choosing party over praise, finances over life . . . going against our moral fabric as human beings. We have become a society by taking care of the least of those in our care. But somehow, they have become disposable.”
However, Rev. Brisco said, “There is no constitutional right for you to die and me to live. The national plan is for everybody to decide for themselves what’s best for them. Well, that’s not the way God planned it.”
Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, a network she said connects 2,000 churches from 20 different Christian traditions, is another organizer of the Faith Leaders Covid Safety Pledge. “Clergy began to go digital in mid-March to protect their congregants,” she said. “Pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams want to do right by their communities, to keep people safe, to serve well. We’re faithful people, seeking the counsel of science as well as our higher power.”
Janan Najeeb is one of the founders of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and currently serves as the president of the organization.
The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition (MMWC) sits on the South Side of Milwaukee, run by a group of influential Muslim women who have worked to educate people about Muslim culture for the past 25 years. The idea for the organization started to take shape when the group would meet regularly to discuss the prejudice and disparaging comments they were experiencing at work. Upset about the remarks made about their hijabs and customs, the women decided that teaching others about their culture was the solution.
“The vast majority of people are not racist by nature, but their racism is manifested as a result of fear of the unknown,” says president and founding member Janan Najeeb. “If we can work to help them understand and to help them address those fears by creating opportunities to engage with them, then I think we will do a tremendous job of dismantling a lot of these hatreds that are out there.”
Najeeb and the group began hosting discussions and recommending readings about the Muslim religion to non-Muslim groups. But they soon realized how few accurate books were available in the Milwaukee area. They couldn’t blame people for knowing so little about their culture when most of the books they could find about Muslim culture were inaccurate and written by non-Muslims.
So, the group of women began collecting books with the right messages that they could lend out. Then, in 2009, when the group became an official 501c3 organization, they acquired their current space on the South Side and built a library. The library is now filled with thousands of books “that accurately represent who we are,” says Najeeb. The shelves are also filled with children’s books that have characters and stories that Muslim children can identify with. These books are not often found in our public libraries and schools. As Najeeb explains, it’s important for kids to see names of characters they recognize and holidays they know. “There’s a sense that they matter, that their story matters and that they are recognized. That is important when you are a minority.”
Reach Out and Connect
The MMWC makes a point to reach and connect with people through multiple mediums, and the library is only one part of their extensive programming. They host book clubs, give lectures, offer job training for women, and they even started the Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival. This year, most of their events are online because of the pandemic, but that hasn’t slowed them down.
The organization still plans to host the film festival this year in collaboration with the Milwaukee Film Festival by giving people the chance to watch the film American Muslim online. The film follows a number of Muslim individuals that were affected by the executive order that Trump signed in 2017 banning predominately Muslim countries from entering the United States.
The film and the other events that MMWC create all come back to their core mission of building bridges of understanding between the Muslim community and the greater Milwaukee community. As Najeeb explains, “If you create opportunities to really get to know people, to have a discussion, it’s really difficult to hate them.” The division in our country can start to wane if we take the time to understand the cultures we know little about and get to know people outside of our circles.
Learn more about MMWC’s work at mmwconline.org.