Muslim Solidarity Potluck with The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and Conflict Kitchen. Photo by Ben Hernstrom.

The shooting of a Muslim taxi driver in Hazelwood over Thanksgiving dramatically brought home the rise of Islamophobia in America.

As the result of such incidents and to express solidarity with Pittsburgh’s Muslim community, the Thomas Merton Center has partnered with the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh for a series of events, the first of which is a “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor Potluck” Wednesday, February 17th at the Merton Center’s headquarters.

Since 1972, the Thomas Merton Center has been a voice for peace and social justice in Pittsburgh and the world, a grassroots organization committed to direct action against racism and intolerance in all its forms.

“We take an active anti-racist stance,” says Marnie Fritz, staff member at the Center, “and Islamophobia is no different.”

“Oftentimes,” says Fritz, “when you’re talking to people who are saying racist or bigoted comments, it’s just out of ignorance or not knowing somebody on a personal level.”

Kelcey Sharkas, outreach coordinator at the Islamic Center, sees the event as an opportunity for Muslims and non-Muslims to come together informally and get to know one another.

“Our whole department’s main initiative is mostly to humanize Muslims in the Greater Pittsburgh area. We want to alleviate all the misconceptions that are spreading wildly about Islam and Muslims in general, and to get away from all the paranoia, the ignorance, about who Muslims are.”

The potluck dinner is one of many solidarity events in recent months. Its genesis comes from a meeting between Sharkas and Merton Center staff person Gabriel McMorland at a December “Love Thy Neighbor” event hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace aimed at confronting Islamophobia.

Even more recently, the Islamic Center hosted a Solidarity Potluck in January with Conflict Kitchen. That event attracted 270 people, the vast majority of whom had never stepped foot in a mosque before.

Muslim Solidarity Potluck with The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and Conflict Kitchen. Photo by Ben Hernstrom.
Muslim Solidarity Potluck with The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and Conflict Kitchen. Photo by Ben Hernstrom.

Even so, if breaking bread with “The Other” and getting to know them on a personal level is all it takes to sow the seeds of peace, the organizers recognize that those with prejudices are still not likely to attend.

“That’s the biggest struggle,” says Sharkas.  Even as they open up events to the public, it’s like-minded people who attend. “So you’re preaching to the choir,” she adds.

It’s rare when someone with misconceptions attends, let alone speaks up at such an event.

That doesn’t mean it’s for naught. Sharkas says these events provide the Muslim community with allies and advocates in the non-Muslim community.

“It’s our way to try to get the non-Muslim public to be our spokespeople,” she notes.

The event is free and open to the public but RSVPs are required. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh will provide the food, and guests are encouraged to bring a dessert or non-alcoholic beverage. While the the menu hasn’t been finalized yet, guests can expect a rice dish like chicken biryani and perhaps some lamb kofta and a chickpea salad.

The Potluck is being followed by another event, on March 5th, “How to be a Muslim ally.” More events will follow, all in line with the Merton Center’s mission to bring about a more peaceful and just world.

“We promote peace,” says Fritz. “That’s peace in personal interaction, peace in policy, peace in everyday life. And unfortunately, anti-Muslim hysteria has engulfed the media lately, distorting facts and encouraging misunderstanding about Islam. And it’s important for us to show compassion to our Muslim neighbors, to prevent the spread of intolerance.”

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.