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Interfaith Journey: Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work

November 16, 2016 2 comments

Two of Omaha’s best – Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru and Sharif Zakir Liwaru – share the interfaith journey they make every day as a couple in my new Reader cover story. He’s Muslim. She’s a Follower of Christ. They make their blended union work in this fractious era by being intentional, open and honest about where their beliefs and practices converge and diverge. There is more sameness than difference and where there are differences, they treat each other and their tenets with respect. We all have something to learn from them.

 

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©photo by Debra Kaplan

 

Interfaith Journey

Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2016 issue of The Reader (http://.thereader.com)

 

When it comes to religious diversity, Omaha has churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and temples. The metro’s immigrant, migrant and refugee settlers planted deep roots of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy that still flourish today. The imprint Mormon pioneers made during the 19th century lives on in Florence and Council Bluffs.

Today’s local religious landscape also includes Bahá’í, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, New Religion, Pagan, Atheist and Unitarian centers.  Throughout the metro, interfaith efforts abound: Inclusive Communities, Together Inc., Omaha Together One Community, Neighbors United and the Tri-Faith Initiative. Countryside Community Church programs sometimes feature interfaith dialogues. There are also serious religious studies offerings at local institutions of higher learning that invite cross-current explorations.

Omaha’s not immune from religious bigotry. Hate crimes have defaced area mosques amidst rising anti-Islamic fervor. As recent and still waging wars demonstrate, religion, like race and nationality, can be a wedge for conflict or a bridge for understanding. Schisms happen within and between countries, denominations, congregations, tribes, sects, even individuals. As a house divided starts at home, interfaith couples carry loaded religious commerce. One such couple is Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru of Omaha. He’s a Muslim by birth and choice. She’s a self-professed “follower of Jesus” after growing up Lutheran and Assembly of God.

The 40-something-year-old parents of three are professionals and community activists. He directs the Office of Equity and Diversity at Omaha Public Schools and is president-CEO of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. She’s a teaching artist. They’re both active in the African Culture Connection, the Empowerment Network and the Black Lives Matter movement.

They shared with The Reader how they make their blended union work in this fractious era when contrasting persuasions can be deal-breakers. Not surprisingly for two people who advocate engagement, they go to great lengths to ensure they remain connected despite their differences. It starts with respecting each other and their sometimes opposite beliefs.

Gabrielle said, “As a follower of Jesus in an interfaith marriage

what I admire is that Sharif is not every Muslim. – Sharif is his own Muslim. He’s unique. Each person and their set of beliefs does not have to be exactly like the rest in their group and it goes for me as well. I’m happy that in our relationship we explore ideas and spiritual matters together.”

Though born Muslim to convert parents, Sharif examined the religion and recommitted to it as a young man.

“This settles easy on my heart and on my mind. It makes sense for me,” he said of his practice. His disciplines include fasting, praying five times a day and weekly congregational prayer.

When the couple met 23 years ago, Gabrielle’s religious traditions demonized Muslims. The more time she spent with Sharif and other Muslims, she came to see those ideas as false.

“In a lot of ways, shapes and forms the attitudes-beliefs of Christians towards Muslims are wrong,” she said.

Marriage only confirmed her new-found outlook. “I have a husband who has a golden heart and he is Muslim. I’m extremely in love with how he depicts himself within black American culture and with how he’s chosen to be Muslim, too.”

The couple married despite each being warned against if not forbidden from mating with someone of another faith.

“Both of us we’re breaking rules against our religion to be together,” she said.

They met at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She was a single mom and aspiring artist and art educator. He was a community volunteer. They began as platonic friends. To this day their friendship and love trump any conflicts.

Sharif said, “In faith and spirituality when there are disagreements there’s a barrier that can come from I-feel-it’s- this-way and you-feel-it’s-that-way and there’s no reconciliation.

We’re not trying to create a sense of hierarchy of one being better than the other. At the same time, if either one of us felt the other’s path was THE path, we would have been on it. So, in as much as we agree with the other, we have to acknowledge each of us thinks we’re right.”

“In situations where Sharif thinks he’s right, I still have to respect him to the core as being a peaceful person,” she said.

They try emphasizing those things they are of one accord on.

“We are connected purposefully and spiritually and aligned in so many ways, so it’s a challenge trying to walk through the things we may see differently,” Sharif said. “Our ideologies are very similar in terms of how we treat one another, the belief in one god and in a creator, the understanding that your actions need to reflect what you believe, the sense of having purpose and being created intentionally, having strong moral values and the way you carry yourself as vital.”

Gabrielle said she believes she and Sharif are ordained “to journey together to do the things that make this place better,” adding, “We strengthen community, we strengthen our children and family and we’re role models for people to see that oh, yes, you can get beyond differences.”

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©photo by Devra Kaplan

 

 

It hasn’t always been easy.

“For many years she wasn’t sure how I would take it if she was using Jesus a lot,” Sharif said. “I wasn’t sure how she would take different things – like greeting someone with ‘as-salamu alayka’ or s’alamun alaykum’ (peace and blessings or complimenting someone with ‘alhumdulillah’ (all praises be to god). Or praying-reading from the Koran before eating. Or using Allah for God. Those are Arabic words for English words commonly agreed upon and used in the house.

“We sometimes would self-dictate what made the other person feel uncomfortable. But then as we started to explore and grow,

especially in terminology, she used Yah as the one creator and I used Allah. We came to an understanding that when we say that we’re not saying it be contentious, rather we’re saying the same thing in two different ways. We don’t see them as counter or correction.”

As much as he or she might want the other to follow their beliefs, neither takes offense at their choosing not to.

She said she doesn’t accept Prophet Mohammed as “the final messenger Jesus said was to come after him –I feel like Jesus was talking about the spirit of truth and great comforter that would never leave us alone and would guide us without us having to follow a man and what the man said. I feel that deep in my soul and, yes, I would like my husband to feel that.”

She takes issue with the inequity Muslim women face. There are things about Christianity he finds difficult.

Each felt pressure to bring up they’re kids in a certain faith.

“There was a lot of recruiting by our parents wanting to make sure they grew up in the faith tradition they believed,” Sharif said. “We exposed them very intentionally and unashamedly to our faith. It was no secret Christian faith was on one side of the family and Islamic faith on the other side.”

He said he and Gabrielle left it open for their kids to identify as they saw fit. “Our kids grew to be examiners of information. The same way they took everything, they absorbed and created their own paths.” At various times, he said, they identified as “Muslim-Christian, neither-both, half Muslim and half Christian.”

In 2015 the couple’s middle child, Zaiid, was killed in an auto accident and the loss set them on a new path seeking answers.

“The passing of our son had us exploring an element of our faith we didn’t have many occasions to discuss (before),” Sharif said. “We found commonalities in the way we saw things and we talked through differences. Everything from wording to where Zaiid is now – physical presence versus spiritual presence – to where we originate from as human beings to where we come after we die. We share the philosophy that we are souls with a body, not bodies that have souls. Our bodies are vessels we carry until we return to our creator.”

The couple doesn’t allow any divergence to supersede their relationship.

“The harmony we want is because of our love – our love being bigger than him having a different religion than my spiritual way.

It’s love above all,” Gabrielle said.

They are secure enough that they can broach awkward disagreements without fear of rejection or resentment or rupture.

Sharif said, “Because of the way we feel about each other we can go deep into conversations other people can’t and we feel confident in exploring things. There’s intentionality and purpose. We work on it as much as we do for us because we’ve vested this many years into it, but beyond that working on us is working on God’s plan. That part we know to be truth – no doubt. We have to work through some stuff we don’t agree with or understand but we know the outcome will still be that this union stays. As much as we have some (conflicting) areas, I believe we’re walking the same path.”

Gabrielle doesn’t mask feelings about certain tenets of Islam she opposes but she delights in how she and Sharif find common ground.

I view Islam as being a religion and I feel less inclined to follow any religion. In his mosque I can’t go with him and stand or sit and make Salat with him, and I don’t agree with that. I want to be led spiritually by my husband. I want to have that accountability for a man to uphold his household with first priority to serving God and loving his wife and giving to his children every nurturing and provision he can.

“Sharif embodies all these beautiful characteristics to me and when I can grab his hand and we can pray prayers each of us understands, we’re worshiping,” she said, clasping his hand in hers at their dining room table, “and I believe it doesn’t need a religion that goes with that. It’s just us trying to put God at the center of our marriage and home and bring him glory. That’s where I like to worship. Personally I have found the church of Jesus has no walls. I will continue to have church with people who believe in God, whether we’re at my dining table or on somebody’s couch or in a coffee-shop or outdoors.”

 

 

 

She said nature, music and art resonate with her and Sharif’s spirits. In their North Omaha home plants sprout everywhere, international music plays, incense burns, art pieces from friends and travels pop on walls, tables, shelves. The couple’s curiosity is reflected in their many books and periodicals.

While no discernible faith artifact is displayed, the home exudes a warm, prayer-like intimacy and calm. When their kids were small the couple deliberately integrated faith in their home.

Gabrielle said. “We had the Bible, we had the Koran. We prayed as a family. We adopted and said mostly in English a Hindu prayer. We did prayers I grew up with. We asked our kids to invent prayers. Sharif taught our kids how to make Salat. We didn’t continue to do it religiously, nor did we do Bible or Koranic studies religiously, but our family has a strong sense of being together. We pray when we hear an ambulance go by. Whenever we’re at the table about to eat we honor God first because from God all good things come.”

Their oldest, Parris, composed a prayer the family still recites:

“Thank you Yah for this beautiful day.Thank you for all the blessings you have given us today. Please bless this food. Take any impurities out of it and let it nourish our bodies in every way it can. Please help anyone in need of your merciful blessings and wonderful healing. Amen”

The couple’s faith, she said, extends to “doing community service and standing up for people in need.” She stays “prayed up” for people regardless of their beliefs. “It doesn’t matter what they’re following, if they have a religion or not, just that they’re part of who I call mine. We pray no hardship or harm for our loved ones and that means my Muslim loved ones who cover. The Muslim community is part of who I pray for all the time.”

Though Gabrielle’s concerned about anti-Muslim sentiment, she said, “I have more concern over Sharif’s well-being because he’s a black man in America versus being Muslim.”

After the human stampede that killed and injured thousands during 2015’s Haj, she worried about his safety on the pilgrimage to Mecca he made last summer. Not used to being apart that long, the separation reconfirmed their love.

“We missed each other like crazy when he was on his pilgrimage,” she said. “I think both of us held onto that our love is going to be bringing him safely home and us back together again because of our destiny.”

She feels as a couple they’re still all-in.

“We have 21 years under our belts and it doesn’t feel like we’ve come to a place of we’re too tired to work on this or we don’t have any sparks about each other.”

 

The Reader November

 

 

Meanwhile, they support interfaith exchanges. Omahan Beth Katz used their perspective to frame dialogues and trainings at Project Interfaith. She said she admires their “commitment as individuals and as a couple” to engage on issues of identity, faith, diversity, culture and community” that are “complex and messy and many people prefer to avoid.” “But I think it is precisely because they each have a deep sense of faith rooted in different religions that avoidance has never been an option and they have embraced this reality rather than resent it.”

“They also didn’t sugarcoat the experience,” Katz said. “They revealed there were times of tension and unease. I think their willingness to share publicly their journey on issues of religion and faith speaks to the incredible respect they hold for each other as people of faith, as a couple and as a family. They live out their faiths and the common values it provides them through their commitment to their family and the larger community.”

Sharif said the interfaith dynamic he and Gabrielle share adds a “very strong richness” to their lives. He agrees with Katz that most folks aren’t ready for open, honest conversation along faith lines. “As a community I think we’re not as engaged in that interfaith conversation as we need to be. Whether interfaith or interracial, conversations are ignored so that nobody feels     uncomfortable or because you’ve decided you know about a particular group of people or it’s just easier to have this hateful opinion versus actually listening and possibly liking the other. Some people are not prepared to deal with that dissonance.”

He likes the Omaha Tri-Faith Initiative’s attempt to bring Christian, Jewish, Muslim faith centers together on one campus.

“It’s countering the narratives we see and hear that folks are not getting along based on their religion and the politics of that, where in many parts of the world these three faiths are interacting in a peaceful way.”

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Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own, As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them

May 4, 2012 10 comments

African-Americans from the town where I live, Omaha, Neb., are often amused when they travel outside the state, especially to the coasts, and people they first meet discover where they are from and invariably express surprise that black people live in this Great Plains state.  Yes, black people do live here, thank you very much.  They have for as long as Nebraska’s been a state and Omaha’s been a city, and their presence extends back even before that, to when Nebraska was a territory and Omaha a settlement.  Much more, some famous black Americans hail from here, including musicians Wynonie Harris, Buddy Miles, Preston Love Sr. and Laura Love, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, the NFL’s first black quarterback Marlin Briscoe, actress Gabrielle Union, actor John Beasley, producer Monty Ross, Radio One-TV One magnate Cathy Hughes, and, wrap your mind around this one, Malcolm X. That’s right, one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century is from this placid, arch conservative and, yes, overwhelmingly white Midwestern city.  He was a small child when his family moved away but the circumstances that propelled them to leave here inform the story of his experience with intolerance and bigotry and help explain his eventual path to enlightenment and civic engagement in the fight to resist inequality and injustice.  Though the man who was born Malcolm Little and remade himself as Malcolm X had little to do with his birthplace after leaving here and going on to become a national and international presence because of his writings, speeches, and philosophies, some in Omaha have naturally made an effort to claim him as our own and to perpetuate his legacy and teachings.  Much of that commemorative and educational effort is centered in the work of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation based at the North Omaha birthsite of the slain civil rights activist.  The following story, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), gives an overview of the Foundation and recent progress it’s made.  Rowena Moore of Omaha had a dream to honor Malcolm X and she led the way acquiring and securing the birthsite and ensuring it was granted historic status.  After her death a number of elders maintained what she established.  Under Sharif Liwaru’s dynamic leadership the last eight years or so the organization has made serious strides in plugging MXMF into the mainstream and despite much more work to be done and money to be raised my guess is that it will someday realize its grand plans, and perhaps sooner than we think.

 

 

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Malcolm X Center

 

 

Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own,  As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Self-determination by any means necessary.

The notorious sentiment is by Malcolm X, whose incongruous beginnings were in this conservative, white-bread city. Not where you’d expect a revolutionary to originate. Then again, his narrative would be incomplete if he didn’t come from oppression.

Born Malcolm Little, his family escaped persecution here when he was a child. His incendiary intellect and enlightenment were forged on a transformative path from hustler to Muslim to militant to husband, father and humanist black power leader.

As it does annually, the Omaha-based Malcolm X Memorial Foundation commemorates his birthday May 17-19. Thursday features a special Verbal Gumbo spoken word open mic at 7 p.m. hosted by Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair at the House of Loom.

Things then move to the Malcolm X Center and birthsite. Friday presents by the acclaimed spoken word artist and author Basheer Jones, plus The Wordsmiths, at 7 p.m.

On Saturday the African Renaissance Festival unfolds noon to 5 p.m. with drummers, native attire, storytelling, face painting and Malcolm X reflections. Artifacts from the recently discovered Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis collection of Malcolm X materials will be displayed. The late musician was a friend and criminal partner of Malcolm Little’s before the latter’s incarceration and conversion to Islam.

It’s a full weekend but hardly the kind of community-wide celebration, much less holiday, devoted to Martin Luther King Jr.

“I tell people, you may still not like Malcolm X, you may have a problem with a revolutionary. Martin was a revolutionary and maybe you came to love him. But I do want you to know brother Malcolm’s whole story and where he came from,” says MXMF president Sharif Liwaru.

“A big portion of what we do is about the legacy of Malcolm X. We go into communities, schools and other speaking environments and we educate people about Malcolm X, what he meant, what his impact was on society. Sometimes people walk away with a different level of respect for him. Sometimes they walk away having a better understanding.”

Sharif Liwaru

 

 

Using the tenets of Malcolm X, the foundation promotes civic engagement as a means foster social justice.

Nearly a half-century since Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination, he remains controversial. The Nebraska State Historical Society Commission has denied adding him to the Nebraska Hall of Fame despite petition campaigns nominating him. Few schools have curricula about the slain civil rights activist.

From its 1971 start MXMF has struggled overcoming the rhetoric around its namesake. The late activist Rowena Moore founded the grassroots nonprofit as a labor of love. She secured the North O lot where the razed Little home stood and where she once lived. Fueled by her dream to build a cultural-community center, MXMF acquired property around the birthplace. The site totals some 11 acres.

 

 

By the time she passed in 1998 the piecemeal effort had little to show save for a state historical marker. Later, a parking lot, walkway and plaza were added. Other than clearing the land of overgrowth and debris, the property was long on promise and short on fruition, awaiting funds to catch up with vision.

Without a building of its own, MXMF events were held alfresco on-site from spring through fall and at rotating venues in the winter. “We felt a little homeless,” says Liwaru. “We were very creative and did a whole lot without a building but we didn’t have a place to showcase and share that.” All those years of making do and staying the course have begun paying off. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in public-private grant monies have been awarded MXMF since 2009. Other support’s come from the Douglas County Visitors Improvement Fund, the Iowa West Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation, the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Humanities Council.

 Malcolm XMost notably a $200,000 North Omaha Historical grant allowed MXMF to acquire its first permanent indoor facility, an adjacent former Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall at 3463 Evans Street, in 2010. Now renamed the Malcolm X Center, it hosts everything from lectures, films, plays, community forums, receptions and fundraisers to a weekly Zumba class to a twice monthly social-cultural-history class. Annual Juneteenth and Kwanzaa celebrations occur there.

MXMF conducts some longstanding programs, including Camp Akili, a residential summer leadership program for youth ages 14-19, and Harambee African Cultural Organization, an outreach initiative for citizens returning to society from prison.

The center is a community gathering spot and bridge to the wider community. Liwaru says it gives the birth site a “public face” and “front door” it lacked before, thus attracting more visitors. Besides hosting MXMF activities the center’s also used by outside groups. For example, Bannister’s Leadership Academy classes and Sudanese cultural events are held there.

“We’re very proud to be a community resource. It legitimizes us as an organization to have that space available. It makes a difference with the confidence of the volunteers involved.””

 

 

A recent site development that’s proved popular is the Shabazz Community Garden, where a summer garden youth program operates.

The surge of support is not by accident. The birthsite’s pegged as an anchor-magnet in North Omaha Revitalization Village plans and Liwaru says, “We definitely see ourselves as a viable part of it.” North Omaha Development Project director Ed Cochran, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray have helped steer resources its way.

Attitudes about Malcolm X have softened to the point even the prestigious Omaha Community Foundation awarded a $20,000 capacity building grant. Despite working on the margins, Liwaru says “investors could see our mission and work ethic and they supported that.”

Since obtaining its own facility, Liwaru says, “I find more people speaking as if our long-range plans are possible.” Those plans call for an amphitheater and a combined conference-cultural center.

For most of its life MXMF’s subsisted on small donations. When the building grant stipulated $50,000 in matching funds, says Liwaru, “”it was really the culmination of a lot of little gifts that made it happen.”

The all-volunteer organization depends on contributions of time, talent and treasure from rank-and-file supporters.

“We believe a little bit of money from a lot of people is beneficial,” says Liwaru. “Sometimes that meant we were probably working harder than the next organization that may be able to go to one or two people to get their funds, but it certainly makes us accountable to more people. We’re ultimately responsible to our community because we have so many community members contribute.

“Our organization belongs to the community. The people get the say.”

In tangible, brick-and-mortar terms, the foundation hasn’t come far in 40 years, but all things considered Liwaru’s pleased where it’s at.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. One of the things that makes me confident we’ve turned this corner is there’s still this strong commitment, there’s still passionate people involved.”

Aerial view of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation birthsite grounds

 

 

Veteran board members and community elders Marshall Taylor and Charles Parks Jr., among others, have carried the torch for decades. “They bring experience and wisdom,” says Liwaru. He adds, “We’ve added strong young people to our board like Kevin Lytle (aka Self Expression), and Lizabet Arellano, who bring a lot of new ideas and a passion for carrying out change in this urban environment.”

However, if MXMF is to become a major attraction a giant leap forward is necessary and Liwaru’s unsure if the support’s there right now.

“Everybody wants sustainability in terms of stable funding and revenue. We put out a lot of funding proposals at the end of last year. Few were approved. We got a lot of nos. Most funders don’t say why. We don’t know if it’s because they’re not wanting to be affiliated with Malcolm X or if it’s not understanding what we do as an organization or if they don’t think we can see projects through to the end.”

He can’t imagine it’s the latter, saying, “Anybody who knows us knows we’re persistent and that what we talk we follow through with.”

His gut tells him the organization still encounters patriarchal, political barriers.

“We always feel we have to come in proving ourselves. I always come in and explain we’re not a terrorist organization or a splinter cell. Most of what we get is a lot of encouragement but it’s a pat on the back and ‘I hope that you guys do really well with that’ versus, ‘I can help.’ I think one of the challenging things is we’re not sure what people think of us. There are many who aren’t sure which Malcolm we’re celebrating.

“If an organization is just completely not interested in covering anything related to Malcolm X it’d be nice to know. So the question from me to philanthropists out there is, ‘What do you think about the Malcolm X foundation and what we do? Do you see it as a worthy cause? What are we missing?”

Malcolm X

 

 

Answers are important as MXMF is S100,000 away from finishing its planning phase and millions away from realizing the site’s full build-out. It could all take years. None of this seems to discourage MXMF stalwarts.

“We are willing to sacrifice and work diligently for however long it takes,” says Lizabet Arellano. Fellow young blood board member Kevin Lytle takes hope from the momentum he sees. “There’s more and more people at events and rallies and different things we do. People are finally starting to recognize and take pride in the fact Malcolm X was born here,” he says. “We have to start somewhere, and that’s a start. People know that we’re here and that we’re representing something beneficial to the community.”

Liwaru sees a future when major donors ouside Nebraska help the MXMF site grow into a regional, national, even international mecca for anyone interested in Malcolm X.

Besides a House of Loom cover charge, the weekend MXMF events are free. For details, visit http://www.malcolmxfoundation.org or the foundation’s Facebook page.


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