This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Valentina Khan is a first year Master of Muslim Leadership Context student at the Claremont School of Theology. She is a co-founder of I Am Jerusalem, an interfaith organization which promotes friendship, understanding, and striving for the “greater purpose” by dedicating time to community service and social justice. Born and raised in Southern California, to Iranian mother, and Indian father, Valentina has a diverse background that helps her identify as a “citizen of the world”. Valentina hopes to mediate conflicts between intra-religious and inter-religious groups and cultures, via conflict resolution, as well as promote the peace she knows can exist between people if they just put in the effort. Valentina is a yoga teacher and the creator of Enerji barre, where she enjoys empowering her students to love their bodies, appreciate their health and live in the moment!
“I Am Jerusalem, that’s it, we got it, I Am Jerusalem! You are Jerusalem! We are all Jerusalem!” My best friend Sarah and I exclaimed on our yoga mats one day after a 90 minute intensive Vinyasa flow. Sarah was raised as a Christian, and I as a Muslim. It was when we were in the 7th grade when she asked me the heavy question, “so do Muslims believe in Jesus?” This question was the common theme in my life, growing up in suburban Orange County and surrounded predominately by white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants. As a child, and still today, I can look up and down any major street in my town and find multitudes of churches: Trinity Presbyterian, a progressive church, First Church of Christ, Christian Science, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Unitarian, Methodist, and Catholic, all within a 5 mile radius. I remember we had to drive about 25 minutes to get to Sunday School at the local Mosque, and I wished so much to just go with my Christian friends down the street, after all God was the same…right?
I learned he was. I learned that the God of the Muslims, was the same God of the Jews and Christians, and of all humanity. I grew up learning that Allah, God, created all of the universe, and all humanity equally. The stories of Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad were common stories that were often repeated throughout my adolescence into my adulthood. Which is why when Sarah asked me, my 7th grade spiritual soul was more than confident to answer: “Yes! We do! He was born to Virgin Mary, and he performed all kinds of miracles!” And that was enough for her at that time, and for me.
Moving forward to 2006, sitting on our yoga mats no longer as kids, and just finishing our Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti’s, again the topic of religion came up. This time it was in the form of we are so similar, we worship God, we believe in peace and social justice, we embrace all types of cultures and peoples, let’s make a shirt with some sort of message. Excited at the thought, we narrowed it down, and thought let’s just speak to Abrahamic faiths (for right now) because the average Abrahamic layperson does not seem to truly know each-other.
We hypothesized that if they knew, they would be at peace and not have the inclinations to fear, have animosity, and barriers that many of them do (“them” meaning, various peoples of the three faiths). So, what seemed like nano-seconds, Jerusalem came to mind, and I exclaimed “I Am Jerusalem!” Sarah embraced it immediately, and that was the birth of our non-profit today.
Excited to embark on this new journey, we knew it wouldn’t go very far,unless we incorporated our Jewish history too. It was 2 years later in 2008, our Jewish sister, Sande joined the picture and we were complete. So now we had the idea. We had the image. We had the message, and a believer from each faith background. What was left was to introduce it to the world, in particular the world-wide web. Sarah was able to put together a basic WordPress site, which we are still using today.
See I am Jerusalem.
Then last week Sarah found a hopeful IT guy, so we thought. They met and discussed the budget, which he agreed to, and the style and theme of the site. She provided the image, the message, and he apparently was fine with everything, until she received an email from him afterwards. In the email he wrote: “Friendship, unity, and peace are essential for healthy global relations. I applaud your efforts toward peace and reconciliation, as well as creating a more harmonious world. However, there is an important question left unanswered in regards to focusing on our common values: Who is Jesus Christ? He is either a liar, lunatic, or God’s Son.” When she shared this with me, I was saddened and I knew he wasn’t alone in his thinking.
The irony of this whole thing was just the day before (at yoga again), Sarah and I were talking about a holiday boutique she went to, and I asked if I Am Jerusalem could bring shirts for the next time. She said, “sadly, no, because this particular holiday boutique serves Christian purposes, and I Am Jerusalem is not a good fit”. I asked her why, and her response was, “well many conservatives, hold the “Jesus: Lord, liar or lunatic” view, and that’s just how it goes”. I asked what about all the themes of peace and love in the bible, she said, “yes, I know, but unfortunately, others don’t focus on that as much as on evangelizing”. We ended it there.
The next day she met with the IT guy, and he confirmed her generalization of conservative beliefs right in his email when he declined to work with us. This encounter was coincidental but was also a loud and clear message to me, our work needs also to focus on creating higher levels of understanding, one encounter at a time. My eagerness to reach out to people on the world-wide web instantly became secondary, when a local IT guy who gets coffee at the same place we do harbors those thoughts. I Am Jerusalem needs to be more hometown, than world wide in these initial phases.
What boggled me most was this was a professional relationship. We were not soliciting him to join I Am Jerusalem. I was more amazed at his stance on a theological level which impeded on a potential job for him. As a matter of fact, I admired his candidness and his staunch devotion. What he believes in is so profound and the only way, he could not see past it for a side job helping us with a website. In his job decline email he even put in the effort to quote various verses from the bible, one in particular: In the book of John, Jesus said:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father
except through me.”
Just for my own research, I looked up themes of love in the bible and found the following verses:
Romans 13:8 “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
Ephesians 4:2 “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,”
1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
I am not inviting a theological debate over interpretation,because even in my own faith there are divergences and various readings of any particular verse from the Qur’an. I understand even though there are themes of love in the Bible it must be read in context. I am also an outsider of the Christian faith looking in. Ultimately, this situation was one that was supposed to stay in the professional realm: Non-profit organization seeking web designer, and it turned into a theological conflict for him in particular. Perhaps these are just signals from above, that we have our work ahead of us, and it truly starts with just one person at a time.