How ‘Vacation Interfaith School’ helped make connections in Maryland

(Interfaith America) – On a Thursday evening in early August, Tameeka Washington found herself outside the mosque on the campus of the Diyanet Center of America, not far from her home in Bowie, Maryland. It was the second night of her latest project – “Vacation Interfaith School” – and she and a group of young students were eager to pay a visit and learn a few things about how Muslims live out their faith.

Washington first moved to Bowie with her husband in 2007. At the time, she had no idea she would become a grassroots organizer, let alone one who started an interfaith summer camp and worked side by side with religious leaders and community members of different traditions.

But in 2020, as the pandemic began to take hold around the world, she heard a call. The message was a bit vague. “I was like, we have to do something,” she said. “But I didn’t know who ‘we’ were.”

As a Seventh-day Adventist, she often finds herself driven by a need to serve here and now. “I can’t help it. My faith is a big part of why I’m doing this and my understanding of who God is.

That summer, as large protests over the murder of George Floyd began to unfold in nearby Washington, D.C., and beyond, she found herself wanting to join in the public outcry but had some concerns. . “People were heading to DC, and I was like, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. It sounds crazy,” she said.

So she contacted the local authorities in her town and, with their support, organized a vigil for the people of Bowie. Among those speaking out against racial violence that Saturday night in June were members of the community as well as city and state officials, local law enforcement and clergy.

Tameeka Washington, President and Founder of Interfaith Coalition of Bowie, visits the Diyanet Center of America, August 2022. (© Shelby Swann Photography)

Tameeka Washington, President and Founder of Interfaith Coalition of Bowie, visits the Diyanet Center of America, August 2022. (© Shelby Swann Photography)

Stephen Weisman, rabbi of Temple Solel, a Reform congregation, was one of the clergy who spoke. He met Washington for the first time that night and was impressed with her organizing skills. The two have become friends. This chance encounter between an Adventist and a rabbi quickly turned from friendship to professional collaboration, and today Washington jokingly refers to Weisman as his co-conspirator in community organizing.

Three weeks after the vigil, Washington hosted an online roundtable to talk about faith, race and social justice. In addition to city leaders, Washington invited Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy, including Weisman, to speak to the community about their concerns.

“I know for me the question is, where is God in all of this?” she says. “If I have these questions, someone else has this question. So let’s see if we can’t get people some answers.

The event was a success and fueled her desire to do more. It also helped crystallize his vision of how best to give back. She thanks Weisman for helping to fulfill her calling. “I told him what we needed was a lay-led organization that would help bind the clergy together in times like this,” he said.

In 2020, she launched the Bowie Interfaith Coalition.

Today, the coalition provides a platform for a diverse group of faith leaders and community members to come together in the name of social justice as agents of change. Even in the midst of a pandemic, they have been regularly present in the public square for two years.

Online faith-focused roundtables continue and cover a range of topical issues: faith and critical race theory; fostering an inclusive community for LGBTQ youth in religious spaces; autism and religion; and scientific information about the COVID-19 vaccine, to name a few.

Reverend Emily Holladay, pastor at Village Baptist Church, is among the clergy that is part of the interfaith coalition. “How many people do you know who say, I’m not a clergyman, I just go to church,” she said. “But I want the clergy to come together because I think they can impact the community.”

With hate-motivated violence and extremism on the rise nationwide, it’s this kind of community building that cities as diverse as Bowie are ready for.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, of Bowie’s 58,000 residents, 56% are black, 32% are white, 7% are Hispanic, and 4% are Asian.

Bowie State University is one of the 10 oldest historically black colleges in the nation. Earlier this year, the school was among a number of historically black schools across the country that received bomb threats during Black History Month. The students were forced to shelter in place.

Around the same time, anti-Semitic flyers appeared in area neighborhoods.

In response, the Washington-founded interfaith coalition sponsored a “Bowie United for Peace” rally where city officials, community leaders and clergy presented a united front to speak out against the incidents. Representatives from Bowie State were also present. Rhonda Jeter, dean of Bowie’s College of Education, told local media: ‘I’m thrilled for all the people coming together in the community and faith groups. I think that’s really good.

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Creating opportunities for people to come together in the name of a more tolerant and just society is a big motivation for Washington, but she’s also passionate about reaching out to the community’s younger demographic.

This summer, the coalition organized a three-day summer camp for 8-12 year olds and called it “Vacation Interfaith School”.

Weisman, who has run Jewish summer camps in the past, said, “Vacation Bible Schools are an important part of the Christian community. But it’s an exercise in silo building, because each church runs its own. He argues that a camp like this not only emphasizes a shared understanding between people of different faiths (or none), but it also has a way of breaking down silos.

The children visited the Bowie Village Baptist Church, the Diyanet Center of America in nearby Lanham, and Bowie United Parish, a Presbyterian Church (USA) and a United Church of Christ congregation.

Storm clouds roll over Diyanet Center of America in Lanham, Maryland, August 2022. (© Shelby Swann Photography)

Storm clouds roll over Diyanet Center of America in Lanham, Maryland, August 2022. (© Shelby Swann Photography)

For the visit to the Baptist Village, Holladay organized a treasure hunt in the church and allowed the children to play the organ and climb the pulpit. She showed them the baptistery and explained its purpose and what made it unique to Baptists.

At the mosque, children learned why Muslims pray five times a day and when.

“One of the little ones was asking about the baptismal pool, was it a hot tub?” laughed Washington. “But I think having the kids in different sacred spaces without it being a service and being able to walk around and ask questions and touch things was really helpful.”

While the program remained loose for the inaugural version of camp, Washington wants to build on what they learned and what didn’t work and plans to offer it again next summer.

Although he works full time and is raising two children, ages 8 and 14, Washington is eager to continue his work and find opportunities to collaborate. Bowie’s Interfaith Coalition recently partnered with another nonprofit to raise money for an Afghan family who came to the area as refugees.

In creating the coalition, Washington understood why this kind of engagement is needed at times like these. “(Before that), things were happening in my community and I was sleepwalking through it,” she said. “I’m so focused on my kids being okay, my husband being okay, me being okay. I want to make sure that not only are we okay inside our house, but the people around us are okay, because they’re our neighbors, aren’t they? And we all have to be good.

A version of this article originally appeared in Interfaith America magazine.

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