Tag Archives: Faith in the City

Faith in the City: Part IV—American Muslims and the Civic Good

In Part III of the Faith in the City series, Common Place interviewed Milton Friesen about City Soul, an initiative by Cardus to help faith-based organizations better contribute to the life of neighborhoods. In Part IV of this series, Alexander Massad considers how the historic growth of urban American Islam has led some Muslims to respond in innovative ways to the issues and challenges of urban life.


From the image of the melting pot to the motto e pluribus unum, the United States has been portrayed as a nation that successfully incorporates different cultures, religions, and languages to produce a unified American identity transcending these differences. History presents a different picture. Since its inception, America has constantly negotiated and renegotiated religious pluralism and liberal democratic principles in an attempt to clarify what it means to be “American.” The current media focus on Islam has drawn the American Muslim community into the ongoing debate over the terms of religious pluralism and liberal democracy. The issues are summed up in two broad questions: What does a growing urban Muslim population mean for religious pluralism and democratic participation in America? And how can American Muslims enrich and advance what it means to be American today?

Although Muslims first came to North America through the slave trade, two later historical periods contributed to the growth of urban American Islam. The first period, roughly between 1860 and 1940, involved large-scale African-American migration from the South to the North, rapid urban industrialization, and white prejudice. New urban centers in the Midwest perpetuated the dominant American identity matrix, which a priori rejected African-American culture. As Muslim scholar Kambiz GhaneaBassiri has pointed out, Islam provided a response by asserting Afro-Islam against Anglo-Protestantism as an alternative matrix for African-American social and economic advancement. This led to the formation of urban Muslim organizations such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam.

The second major event was the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which significantly increased the number of non-European and non-Christian immigrants to the United States. These new Muslim immigrants were drawn to urban centers such as Chicago and Detroit by their long-established American Muslim communities and institutions. This influx enlarged these urban communities to the point that currently ninety-four percent of American Muslims live in urban areas. As the American Muslim community grew,  David Machacek explains, it began to, “renegotiate the terms of American social and cultural life.” This renegotiation was not a rejection of an American identity but rather a reinterpretation of it through “a process of active cultural [and religious] renegotiation and institutional reform,” says Machacek.

The most dynamic renegotiation and institution-building by Muslims has occurred at the local level—and it has not always been easy. In 2000, the Illinois city of Palos Heights offered Al Salam Mosque Foundation $200,000 to walk away from purchasing a local church and then there was the 2011 uproar over the building of an Islamic and interfaith community center in lower Manhattan. Then there was the controversy over the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that cost the local community nearly $350,000 in legal fees alone.

Despite these headline stories, there are numerous examples of Muslims taking the initiative for positive change in American cities, where Muslim communities themselves are faced with challenges such as poverty, crime, and social unrest. Addressing the violence of Chicago’s south side, for example, Rami Nashashibi established the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) as a transformative force to counteract conflict and poverty in these neighborhoods. Propelled by his faith, Nashashibi and his organization have sought to bring together the seemingly disconnected segments of their community for urban development. IMAN has received financing and support from Muslim small-business owners, which has enabled it to provide a free community health clinic, to organize voter registration, and to convert abandoned property into environmentally friendly housing. The organization’s most publicized event is “Taking It to the Streets,” a “Muslim-led festival where artistic expression, spirituality, and urban creativity inspire social change.” IMAN has been a model for similar ventures in other major urban cities like Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Baltimore.

On more of a multi-city level is Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). Patel acts on Islam’s core tenets of mercy, compassion, and the dignity of human beings, beliefs that motivated him to bring together different religious groups for community service in cities and on college campuses across the country. The goal is to cultivate a practice of interfaith cooperation on civic projects that would influence future generations. IFYC asserts that religion is one of the most powerful motivators for action and seeks to tap into its potential for civic good amidst religious pluralism.

America has been, and continues to be, a nation that constantly renegotiates its identity. IMAN and IFYC are just two examples of how Muslims have tried to show that Islam can be a powerful force in civic life, joining other religious and non-religious organizations in bringing positive, long-term solutions to the problems faced by our cities.

Alexander Massad is a Ph.D. student in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University, working on Religious Pluralism. His research focuses on the socio-political effects of Christian and Muslim epistemology within religiously diverse communities.

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Faith in the City: Part III, City Soul—An Interview with Cardus’ Milton Friesen

Milton Friesen is Program Director for Social Cities with Cardus, “a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture” based in Hamilton, Ontario. He directs a new project area within Social Cities called City Soul. I spoke with him recently about this effort and how he believes faith-based organizations can contribute to the life of neighborhoods. 

Q: What is the City Soul project and why did Cardus initiate it?

City Soul is an effort to explore the possibilities of connecting faith-based organizations with long-term planning in cities. This came about as Cardus sought to look for ways to encourage city leaders to place more emphasis on human factors such as social interaction, purpose, meaning, belonging—emphases that we believe foster full human flourishing rather than engineering or marketplace efficiencies that minimize costs and maximize private returns on investment. We think it is important to consider the social return on investment in cities, and that this is maximized when faith-based institutions are part of the equation.

Q: It seems faith-based organizations are already quite involved in their cities. Why is this project needed?

A wide range of social care and service-level involvement is typical of the faith-based sector, but what is more rare is involvement in thinking about and planning for the spatial arrangement of neighbourhoods and cities. There needs to be a more disciplined approach to thinking about the social infrastructure of cities, particularly the institutional landscape that includes religious organizations along with the more normal considerations such as businesses, schools, government organizations, and non-profits.

Q: What has been the response from city leaders?

So far, there has been a real interest in this type of interaction with faith-based organizations. Cites are beset today with many social challenges in their communities, and local government does not have the resources to address them adequately. Whether it is the aging population, increasing social isolation, economic hardship, the loss of the middle class, or increased globalization, the social stresses in urban centers today require that every possible resource is used to offset worrying trends by building up the social fabric of cities. There is simply a pragmatic realization that religious institutions in their varied forms are to the social fabric of cities what swamps and bogs are to the ecological landscape. Cities that are serious about attending to the various social challenges in their communities can’t afford to be snobbish about a scarce resource.

Q: Are there concerns or fears about faith-based organizations partnering with local governments?   

Yes, at times, and we hope City Soul will help change current perceptions. Our contemporary sophistication and anti-religious vogue attitudes incline many to minimize the potential contributions of faith communities toward the common good. Some fear simply the mix of religion and government. However, having faith-based organizations more involved in long-term planning in cities does not require religious commitments or the adoption of a theocratic view of governance.

Q: What are the key challenges to getting faith-based organizations more involved in the city planning process?

The difficulties of connecting faith-based organizations and city structural planning are significant. Cities run with the help of highly organized, bureaucratic (in a good sense), and secular (in the sense of serving a diverse public interest) administrations. Faith-based organizations typically operate with smaller administrations, depend heavily on relational rather than formal organizational ties, and are oriented to something other than purely secular commitments. The balance required to design more effective communication and learning between city and faith-based organizations faces the perils of all new initiatives: that misunderstanding, assumptions, and established prejudice on all sides will undo the effort before its full measure can be taken. Most of the infrastructure (social and institutional) is not in place. City-planning processes do not regularly or consistently engage with faith-based organizations in longterm design—they are assumed irrelevant to such processes. This is not intended to be a direct criticism. City planners often overlook faith-based organizations because these organizations have had so little involvement in the formal processes of planning-related deliberations.

Q: What are the barriers to getting faith-based organizations to work with each other and together with city leaders?

Faith-based institutions and organizations are neither literate about city-planning process nor in any significant way coordinated with each other. The result is that they speak to planning-related issues in a highly fragmented way, if even at all. Weaving across this gap would require a regular and persistent structural approach that is not driven by any particular issue. What is needed is a steady and patient interaction rather than a volatile and episodic flurry. It is easier to generate interest in engagement when a particular cause or issue arises that captures the interest of faith-based organizations (changes to parking bylaws, for example), but support for such rallying causes tends to decline just as rapidly once decisions about the issue have been made. Another challenge is that faith-based organizations may insist on confessional alignment as a precondition for cooperation on city issues. It often seems to be the case that issue-driven or confessional comfort are the key drivers of cooperation. Just as businesses coordinate in a chamber of commerce on the basis of being commercial entities, faith-based organizations could explore ways of cooperating and coordinating on the basis of being faith-based organizations, that is, a particular type of entity in the larger urban landscape. I further explain this concept in a recent article for Comment magazine.

Q: What will it take to overcome these issues for both city leaders and faith-based organizations?

Pursuing this kind of meaningful engagement around long-term structural, social, and spiritual themes will require greater investment (or re-allocation) of resources, from both city and faith-based organizations. New work often requires investment ahead of concrete results. Investing social, intellectual, and financial capital in this framework of process requires an exploratory, pioneering mindset. We do not understand enough about the costs and benefits, but one effort that is emerging in Canada builds on the work of Ram Cnaan at the University of Pennsylvania who is examining the replacement cost of services that local faith groups provide to their neighborhoods. The early results show a substantial value to neighborhoods. Funding is not the only need, however. Equally important will be finding people willing to stick with the work even when cause-effect results are hard to see or perhaps not even possible in a full sense. This effort will entail a great deal of searching and persistence. Finally, communication will be key and the development of new tools, resources, strategies, and approaches will be essential.

2013 - 06 - PS - MFriesen



To learn more about Milton Friesen and his work, read his article in Municipal World,Social Infrastructure: Underpinning the success of cities” and his recent one in Comment, “The City is Complex: Lessons from The Wire.”

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Faith in the City: Part II, Will the New Urban Evangelical Change Cities?

9780415779364Those intrigued by the apparent shift among evangelical Christians toward a greater emphasis on cities would be well-served to read a fascinating collection of essays edited by Nezar AlSayyad and Mejgan Massoumi in The Fundamentalist City? Religiosity and the Remaking of Urban SpaceAccording to AlSayyad, the project was an attempt to study “the relationship between fundamentalism as a concept and urbanism as lived reality.” It was an ambitious interdisciplinary effort with a global scope—encompassing case studies among urban Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, including American evangelicals—in light of “the unanticipated resurgence of religious and ethnic loyalties [that have] given new meaning to religion in the public life of many communities.” One result was Omri Elisha’s article, “Taking the (Inner) City for God: Ambiguities of Urban Social Engagement among Conservative White Evangelicals,” which sheds some light on what is driving the new focus on cities among American evangelicals today:

Renewed engagement in the field of urban ministry on the part of suburban evangelicals entails both the realization that the fate of the city is irrevocably tied to their own, and the recognition that the city remains a problematic place where they do not intuitively belong.

Elisha points to the evolving nature of the evangelical view of the city. Previously the “progressive” lifestyle, temptations, and crime of the modern city made it an unappealing place to live for many evangelicals. Some evangelical leaders would even compare it to the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Over the past decade, however, and especially with the younger generation, this has begun to change. New urban churches are springing up across the country. This pattern can be seen in the “fundamentalist” strands within many of today’s world religions, as other chapters in The Fundamentalist City show.

This new, softer image of the urban evangelical, who offers service to city dwellers with no strings attached, has been difficult for some to accept. For example, in reaction to Joy Allmond’s article (see Part I of this series) that claimed evangelicals were leading a New Great Awakening in New York City, Anthony Bradley asked, “Are evangelicals really that important?” In an article for the Acton Institute, he made the case that religious communities other than white (formerly suburban) evangelicals might see things differently:

After reading Allmond’s article one might get the sense only evangelical Christians are thriving in the city. But what about the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, traditional Black Church, Latino/Hispanic, and Asian/Asian-American congregations? Many of those churches have been far more active in New York since World War II than evangelicals have been. It seems to be if God was going to ‘awaken’ New York, or any major city west of the Mississippi River, he would do so by using a coalition of Christians across the traditions who are already there to bear witness to work and person of Christ.

It is hard to argue with Bradley on this point. He and many others are waiting to see if the new urban evangelical movement is going to make a lasting impact on cities. It seems the real test will be whether evangelicals consistently partner with “Christians across the traditions,” who, unlike many evangelicals, stayed in the inner city and consistently maintained ministries to the urban poor.

A larger question in all of this is the extent to which religious groups should be taken seriously as a force for positive, lasting change in cities. More than ever, faith communities need to be part of the conversation when it comes to urban planning, capital expenditures, educational priorities, and other decisions of lasting impact upon a city. Far too often over the past century the major decisions that have left a legacy on cities—from the built environment to the landing of big business deals—have been made by a very small club of individuals, in which religious leaders have either been denied entry or refused to join. This needs to change, and perhaps the new engagement of evangelicals in cities is a positive sign that this is already happening. Looking at this issue globally and inclusive of other faith traditions can again shed light on the changing significance of religion in cities. In an article in The Fundamentalist City about what she calls “post secular urbanisms” in Delhi—where Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have played an important role—Mrinalini Rajagopalan gets to the heart of the matter:

Conventional definitions of modernity have relegated religious belief to the realm of the private and have attempted to abrogate its public appeal by privileging scientific temper and rational thought…. Undoubtedly, and like many other imaginations of modernity, this is an artificial divide that has been questioned by those who offer valuable insights into alternative or multiple modernities.

The usual suspects in city leadership need not fear faith communities and would do well to give them a seat at the table when it comes to those important decisions to address their city’s problems. An important study by Cardus, a think tank in Canada, has recently shown that the key to success is to “improve structural engagement” between “faith based organizations and city planning departments.” Will city leaders in the US be willing to take faith-based organizations seriously? Will religious leaders among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others be able to come together to share common goals for their city and speak with one voice if city leaders give them a seat at the planning table? Time will tell, but I have a strong suspicion that a city’s ability to thrive will largely depend on the community’s ability to say yes to both.

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Faith in the City: Part I, The Evangelicals are Coming!

This is the first in a series of posts from different perspectives on the role of religious communities in cities. 

Evangelicals are coming back to the city, both figuratively and literally. The big change, as they are heralding it, is that they are now focusing their energy and new ministries on America’s urban centers. Some have even moved out of the suburbs and into areas of the city where they would not have imagined themselves living just a few years ago. They have come to the city, and people have noticed. A striking example of this occured when the Luis Palau Association began sponsoring a “Season of Service” in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, garnering positive attention from a city famous for its secularism and progressive outlook. As USA Today columnist Tom Krattenmaker reported, churches were:

fanning out across the Portland area to feed and clothe the homeless, provide free medical and dental services, fix up local public schools, and support their low-income students with supplies, mentoring and other resources. All this with “no strings attached,” [as the organizer Kevin] Palau emphasizes, meaning the service comes without the proselytizing that is often associated with Christian missionary outreach.

Krattenmaker’s piece also points out that this led to unusual coalitions, thrusting “the area’s evangelicals into partnership with Sam Adams, who [the previous year had become] the first openly gay candidate elected mayor of a major American city.”

The Season of Service (now called CityServe Portland) was so well-received in Portland that the model has been replicated in Anchorage, Houston, Little Rock, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Diego; within several evangelical denominations; and even in the State of New Jersey, where the Christie administration has called on citizens to volunteer “through local groups, houses of worship and civic organizations,” calling it a “season of service.”

(Credit New York City Leadership Center)

(Credit New York City Leadership Center)

Another signal of the shift toward cities among evangelicals is Movement Day.  Beginning in 2010, this has become an annual “gathering of leaders to catalyze gospel movements in their cities.” At the forefront of this effort has been Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a congregation of 5,000 in New York City.  This year’s Movement Day will highlight the efforts in Portland; Luis Palau, Kevin Palau (of CityServe Portland), and  Adams will all be plenary speakers.
Season of Service and Movement Day are just a couple among numerous examples that signal a shift, at least among a segment of evangelical Christianity, away from the kind of engagement with society epitomized by the Christian Right and similar movements toward the end of last century through the past decade. The significance of this new urban focus has led some, such as Joy Allmond of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to speak of the next “Great Awakening.” Jay Tolson had previously reported the same term was being used to signify something slightly different by another strand of evangelicals, but either way it seems there is a big change on the horizon that is taking place in cities.  
The evangelicals are coming. Are cities ready?
In Part II of this series, we will talk about some of the responses to this trend and the divergent views about what it may mean for cities.  


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