October / November 2020

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OPINION | Guest editorial by Marlaina A. Leppert-Wahl

Cincinnati’s EquaSion can multiply understanding in a divided world


mericans today are in desperate need of healing from the hostility and discord that dominate our socio-political climate.

We need to find unity and harmony to replace the bitter divide we are experiencing in the political, racial and religious facets of our lives. A toxic “us versus them” mentality plays out in racial slurs, ethnic intimidation, violence against innocent people and destruction of property. We need healing in a way that often only comes from our faith communities. And it is through EquaSion that the diverse faith communities of Cincinnati have come together to serve as a model for unity and peaceful coexistence in this divided world. Connected by faith, members of EquaSion embody the religious, cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity of Greater Cincinnati – more than 30 faith communities within 13 world religions. The Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, and others of EquaSion demonstrate the possibilities for the larger society by forging bonds of friendship and nurturing a shared spiritual community. EquaSion evolved from the earlier Bridges of Faith Trialogue, a non-partisan alliance of civic-minded Jews, Muslims, and Christians intent on combating post-9/11 Islamophobia. Shakila Ahmad, former chair and president of the board at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, credits Executive Director Robert “Chip” Harrod and the leadership of EquaSion’s predecessor organizations with “setting the standard in terms of Muslim-Jewish dialogue almost before anyone else in the country. This has allowed these two communities to continue to learn, grow and work together.” Our more recent polarized political climate mobilized the group to counter the upsurge in hatred and bigotry. In its quest for inclusion and community dialogue, the organization 34

OCT/NOV 2020

Interfaith worship service at the 2019 Festival of Faiths

Photo by Marlaina Leppert-Wahl

officially expanded beyond the Abrahamic faiths and re-named itself EquaSion (“S” for Spirituality) in 2019. “EquaSion provides a muchneeded platform for the minority faiths and communities not only to be seen, but also actively participate in the civic affairs and collective betterment of the society,” says Dr. Inayat Malik, EquaSion’s board chair and member of the ICGC.

EquaSion is building an inclusive multi-ethnic, interfaith community in Greater Cincinnati. Members work to overcome divisive stereotypes and create common ground. Rabbi Gary Zola, Ph.D., of the American Jewish Archives and Hebrew Union College, affirms that “The best way to grow in understanding is to work together, shoulder-toshoulder, on a significant project of mutual interest. This is how EquaSion brings people together; we begin as strangers who teach one another and learn from one another. Inevitably, we find ourselves enriched and amazed by our commonalities.” In 2018, as Bridges of Faith, the group organized the first annual Festival of Faiths to showcase the region’s religious diversity through faith

Movers & Makers

celebrations and rituals, interfaith services, art, music and dance. Other projects have emerged. EquaSion members have helped build homes through Habitat for Humanity. They have collaborated to produce the Beloved Community Interfaith Mural as a reminder of Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision. They have invited others into their sacred spaces for interfaith education, worship, and fellowship. With the onset of pandemic in 2020, EquaSion has provided meaningful connections in other ways. The third annual Festival of Faiths was a vibrant but virtual celebration. EquaSion also offered the Turning to Faith webinar series – weekly webinars, featuring Cincinnati’s diverse faith leaders, offering interfaith worship, comfort, and encouragement. They also gave voice to communities of color struggling disproportionately from the pandemic. Michael Hawkins, member of the EquaSion board and Catholic faith, says the organization has created “many champions for change.” EquaSion engages in dialogues on critical issues and stands in solidarity with faith groups under attack. Malik says, “For me as a Muslim American, the notion of a Muslim ban undercut everything this country stands for. For my faith community, it was indeed heartening to see the Bridges of Faith (EquaSion’s predecessor) take a principled public stand in condemning the Muslim ban. Similarly, there was no hesitation on the part of any of our members in condemning the vile acts of antiSemitism, including repulsive graffiti seen [recently] in our city.”

Believing that all of society suffers when one community is targeted, EquaSion formed the Cincinnati Regional Coalition Against Hate to monitor and respond to incidents of hate. EquaSion has crafted media statements condemning hate crimes against worshippers and letters to legislators on gun violence and the plight of refugee children. Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, EquaSion called for racial justice, while acknowledging the exemplary police-community reforms of the Cincinnati Police Department. Constructing solutions to these divisive issues begins with intergroup dialogue to nurture respect and understanding. The EquaSion model has the potential to foster healing and unity during this contentious time. “In a meaningful way, EquaSion is working towards integration of disparate groups in pursuit and promotion of the ideals on which the country was founded. Our diversity is our life blood and the fuel for our progress and growth as a nation,” Malik says. “As we have engaged and dialogued together, we have discovered that we have a lot in common. It gives me immense joy to see some wonderful close personal friendships and collaboration develop among the members as a direct result of their association with EquaSion. I hope more people will see fit to get involved and carry its important work forward.”   www.equasion.org Marlaina A. Leppert-Wahl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science at Wilmington College, a Quaker-founded college in Wilmington, Ohio, and a Christian member of EquaSion.