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Boston’s religious communities seek a path to post-election unity

building bridges

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) joined a diverse group of Boston religious leaders in the call for solidarity against bigotry and hatred Sunday evening.

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A demonstrator holds a 'Love Trumps Hate' placard during a candlelight vigil in Lafayette Park, near the White House, in Washington, D.C., protesting the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States on Nov. 12, 2016.

Mike Theiler/Reuters

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Boston isn’t known for diverse political views, but some 2,600 people gathered Sunday evening to take the first steps toward making the city a model for unity in a time when divisive views have created two very different visions for the nation’s future.

In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential victory, surprise, anger, joy, and fear have pitted voters into opposing camps, leaving many wondering if the billionaire businessman’s leadership can unite the nation. Many minorities have expressed fear of his proposed policies and rhetoric, with some becoming victims of hate crimes at the hands of Trump supporters, including some 860 that were reported in the 10 days following the Nov. 8 presidential election.

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Across the United States, individuals and community organizations – including The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) – are responding with acts of kindness or joining forces in solidarity to send this message: Love trumps hate.

Gathering at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center on Sunday evening, people packed into the crowded prayer hall and adjoining rooms, where they watched the local religious leaders, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts speak on TV screens. People of all ages, races, and religions shuffled into seats and lined the walls, greeting members of the mosque and each other warmly, some stopping by the cafe for baked goods and others grabbing papers from a booth that advertised ways to become a Muslim ally.

In an evening that centered around offering support and understanding to one another in spite of racial, religious, and cultural differences, the organization hoped to lead as an example for ways in which other communities – and the nation – can find common ground as Americans and heal from a tumultuous election cycle.

“We make a committed stand against hate and bigotry,” Rev. Burns Stanfield, who serves as the organization’s president, told the crowd, describing some of the hate-fueled incidents that have occurred around the nation, including in Boston’s own neighbor city Cambridge. “You will be asked to stand strongly against it.”

The evening opened with prayers based in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths, followed by testimonies from four members of the Boston community: a Somali refugee, a Boston university student involved in youth ministry, an undocumented immigrant, and a man who voted for Mr. Trump.

“As a refugee, I feared for my safety,” Shamso Ahmed, the Somali refugee said. “I still remember that feeling.”

Since her family found sanctuary in Boston, Ms. Ahmed went onto attend schools in the city’s public education system and eventually graduated with a degree in accounting and finance from Northeastern University. She founded the International Translation and Interpretation Company, which offers English-language translation services to those lacking proficiency.

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Still, she feels even her own liberal city has changed in the wake of Trump’s victory, and said someone recently struck her as she walked down the street. Now, she says the same fear that she remembers as a refugee in Somalia has returned.

Many Americans have turned inward – some out of exhaustion – following the bitter 2016 campaign, discrediting those who voted for an opposing candidate and labeling large swathes of the country as "deplorable" or "out-of-touch liberals." Instead of listening to one another, some have returned to "media bubbles," living in news echo chambers where their own views are reaffirmed rather than engaging in political discourse to better understand those on the other side of the aisle.

In the reliably blue state of Massachusetts and liberal hub of Boston, that phenomenon can prove difficult to avoid, but the GBIO sought to make the event as nonpartisan and inclusive as possible.

Peter Brook, a member of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Boston, says he based his ballot choice on decades-old conservative values, not Trump’s brazen rhetoric or demeaning comments.

"I voted for Donald Trump," he said. "I was a bit surprised the president-elect won, but I was really taken aback after the election."

The election’s outcome stunned many of his fellow churchgoers, who mourned Hillary Clinton’s loss. Seeing those he cares about so deeply affected following by Trump’s victory has compelled him to reach out and make connections across political divisions.

The GBIO drafted a page-long statement for attendees to read, placing copies on chairs around the room.

"In rededicating ourselves to this great civic project, we are also inspired by the age-old maxim, E pluribus unum, 'Out of many, one,' " the statement reads. "For our country to flourish, we need the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual contributions of many different kinds of people throughout society."

Mr. Walsh and Senator Warren, both Democrats, signed onto the statement, and those in attendance were encouraged to text a number provided at the bottom to do so as well.

"We accept it. We endorse it. And we’re going to adopt it as our own," Walsh said.

Walsh, who has served as Boston’s mayor for almost three years, is the son of immigrants himself and was a vocal opponent of Trump’s bid for the presidency. He said he began visiting the mosque after becoming mayor and has experienced a warm welcome that would dispel any fear of the Muslim community.

"If every elected official in America visited a mosque between now and inauguration in January, we would be able to have a better conversation in our country," he said to loud cheers.

Warren, who sharply criticized Trump and openly battled with him on Twitter, marveled at the diversity and sense of community felt throughout the building. While she decried hatred and bigotry, she shifted her focus from the president-elect to a call for unity.

"When we do this, we grow stronger and more resilient as a community," Warren said. "I believe that to truly build bridges … that we start by listening and seeking understanding."

The state’s Republican governor Charlie Baker and lieutenant governor Karyn Polito did not attend the event, but sent a letter with their support for the organization and its mission.

As Sunday's event drew to a close, organizers asked attendees to share the GBIO statement of unity with people outside of Massachusetts, and reminded them that the road ahead would include more than just talk.

Encouraging people to organize, call their representatives, comfort victims, and openly oppose discriminatory policies, local Rev. Ray Hammond (co-founder of the Ten Point Coalition, an ecumenical group working with minority youths) reaffirmed the idea that everyone present had a role in determining the nation’s future.

"This work is gonna get done," he said.