Commuters might have noticed something very different on a Sunday morning ride down the Drag — about a half-dozen red and white signs raised by University of Texas-area churches, proclaiming, “We stand with our Muslim neighbors.”
Penned “The Banner Project,” the campaign aims to diminish anti-Muslim attitudes in America, a national effort born right here in Austin, sponsored by the nonprofit Interfaith Action for Human Rights.
“These banners are something simple, concrete and visible, and we hope they will lead to many, many acts of mutual understanding and compassionate work among people of different religious faiths,” the Rev. John Elford said at the late April launch party for area churches when his congregation, University United Methodist Church, unveiled its banner.
The first banner went up at the Congregational Church of Austin, just off the Drag, when parishioners marched to the Nueces Mosque down the street for an open house, where they shared a meal next to rooms where Muslims wash and pray.
The most important thing was to be sure the Muslim community actually supported the project, said the Rev. Tom VandeStadt, pastor at Congregational.
“We didn’t want to be presumptuous,” he said.
With that blessing, 14 other churches and synagogues have since raised signs.
Spearhead Bonnie Tamres-Moore said it couldn’t come at a better time, since anti-Muslim attitudes are on the rise. A February Pew Research poll found that more than 75 percent of Americans think discrimination against Muslims is increasing, something she attributes to a presidential campaign peppered with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. (A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 40 percent of educators are hesitant to teach about the election in class because of those messages.)
For her, sitting on the sidelines was not enough.
“It is very clear to me that being a bystander to hatred and intolerance makes it possible for hatred and intolerance to grow,” she said.
University-area churches are now working together to do more than just put out a public statement. University United Methodist will offer classes on Islam this fall. Three other area churches will join a local Muslim organization June 8, during the holy month of Ramadan, to break the fast by eating together.
Elford and VandeStadt predicted the signs will stay up through the election cycle and while classes are in session, to ensure that Muslim students feel welcome and supported.
Elford said the campaign comes down to “love thy neighbor.”
“Growing up, I kind of thought that was pretty much a noncontroversial statement and that anybody would accept that,” he said. “But you find that in the midst of all that we’re seeing around us, that we need to be reminded to love our neighbors.”
Participating faith communities
University United Methodist, University Baptist, Congregational Church of Austin, Trinity Church of Austin, Faith Presbyterian, All Souls, St. Austin Catholic Parish, St Andrew’s Presbyterian, Congregation Beth Israel, First United Methodist, Prince of Peace Lutheran, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Church of the Savior, Live Oak Unitarian Universalist, University Christian, Texas Hillel Foundation