Welcoming Difference

On April 4th, I joined a small group of Messiah students, and alumni in attending the Sixth Annual Freedom Seder at Beth El Temple in Harrisburg. The topic of this year’s event was immigration, and the refugee crisis, focusing on how the three major monotheistic world religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are called to respond to strangers, particularly those in need.

“We Are All Children of Immigrants: Welcoming the Stranger in an Unwelcoming World” the cover of the event program read, as it encouraged us to remember our own heritage, while also calling us to action.

As the event attendees gathered in the temple’s community hall, we joined members of local churches, the Beth El Temple, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The purpose of the seder was to come together to pray for freedom, rejoice in what we have, and celebrate the kinship, and love between us all, as beings of the Creator (whatever name you choose to call them). It was beautiful to see people of different faith traditions gather in a religious space, and find commonality.

The central point of the night was when we were able to hear the personal accounts of two women, and their journeys to find home in the United States. These women spoke eloquently of their different experiences – one, as a Muslim immigrant, and the other, as a Jewish refugee – and what it meant for them to be welcomed by their faith communities, not as strangers in a foreign land, but as family to be supported and loved.

In order to dehumanize someone, you have to not see them.

So many of us look at those people Emma Lazarus poetically referred to as the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” but don’t really see them. It’s easy to ignore the plights of our brothers and sisters, if we always place them within the frame of “other” and never see them as human. Hearing these women’s stories, in their own words, and seeing their faces, removed the distance that lies between “us and them,”. It forced the listener to give a voice, and a soul to the “huddled masses.”

I would hope that everyone who was present walked away from the event feeling less disconnected from the issue of immigration, and the refugee crisis, as they were challenged to find, and see themselves, and the Creator in strangers – to see divinity in difference.

Religion is so often used in matters of politics as justification for treating others differently or, even, as unhuman. At this event, we were all called to remember the teachings of our respective religions, and were reminded that each of those religions challenges us to give of ourselves, our possessions, and our blessings, in order to help others.

When all of these religions are used to justify distrust or hared, it is not a true reflection of the religion, nor its founding values.

I think what really stood out to me about the evening is how easy it really is for people of different religions to share a space, a meal, a conversation. It’s easy to share our beliefs without judgement and with respect for one another – if everyone is willing to show genuine care for their neighbors. However, this is rarely possible outside of such spaces, because we make it difficult. So often we pass negative judgement on difference and accomplish nothing but spread misconceptions about others.

Communities require all of their members to come together in order to accomplish things, and I believe events like this really set an example of what a healthy community can be. If so many members of different faiths in one community can come together in love, for the purpose of celebrating the intersections between our faith teachings and how they can allow us to build a better tomorrow, then there is no reason we can’t do the same in the outside world, on a much broader scale.

As we joined voices for the final song, I thought of all of hatred, distrust, and violence between members of different faiths, that has scarred history, and continues to muddy the waters of peace today. Our religions call us to love, and serve both our neighbors and strangers and, as I placed my arms around my Jewish and Muslim sisters, the fact that so many of my own faith tradition would hold some abstract regard for one, but struggle to see the other as fully human weighed upon my heart.

Events such as the Freedom Seder are triumphs for peace and unity, but we still have a long road ahead – and I hope we can walk side-by-side. Taking action for social justice and supporting those in need are not just religious concerns, they are human concerns, and there’s no good reason we can’t take each other’s hands and come together in this.

At the Freedom Seder, I saw that welcoming difference welcomes positive change.

img_9001Kaitlyn Coleman is a senior double major in History and English, with a Public Relations minor. She joined the Student Fellows program because she was excited to connect interdisciplinary classroom learning with community engagement. Her projects for the Center have allowed her to merge her interests and pursue multifaceted experience beyond usual coursework. She hopes that her time completing projects for the Center and collaborating with and learning from both peers and community members will prepare her to pursue employment in the public history field following graduation


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