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Newtown Interfaith Council Reconvenes Face-To-Face After 26 Virtual Months



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Newtown Interfaith Council (NIC) met in person recently, marking the first time in 26 months the group gathered in the same room. Six local leaders of faith spent nearly 90 minutes reconnecting, and planning a few new steps for the longstanding group.

The May 5 meeting was at Trinity Episcopal Church, in the same room the council met in March 2020 before the world slowed down for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trinity Pastor Reverend Andrea Castner Wyatt welcomed those who joined the meeting.

“I think our goal today is to regather and rekindle this group,” she said.

“This is a real emerging, another point to get past the pandemic,” she added, although she was also careful to not say the pandemic was over.

John Woodall, representing Baha’i Faith, referred to Thursday as a “reconstituting time.”

Also present on Thursday were Deacon Michael Ronan, St Rose of Lima; Bill Donaldson, Love Has A Home Here; and later Eman Beshtawii, Al Hedaya Islamic Center; and Wesley Johnson, The Gathering Community Church. Johnson is also the coordinator for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Newtown Public Schools.

Wyatt invited attendees to introduce themselves — for a few, it was their first time attending an interfaith council meeting — and respond to the question “How are you doing?”

Conversation quickly turned to a Community Conversation hosted by C.H. Booth Library 10 days earlier. The second in what organizers hope will be an ongoing series, the April 25 Community Conversation was “A Discussion of Religion and Race.” Beshtawii, Ronan, Woodall, and Wyatt were on the panel, and Johnson was among the attendees that evening.

Continuing the conversation from the library event, Ronan said he was “disappointed to hear that anyone in our town has any difficulty accessing leaders.” The April 25 discussion, he said, “was a bit of a wake-up call.”

Beshtawii said she continues to hear from her children, and many others in the Muslim community, of “inappropriate” interactions between students, and also between students and teachers.

“It keeps coming up” in discussion, she said. “It’s really bad. We can try to justify, saying ‘They’re just kids,’ but the adults — the teachers, and many of them are parents — they need to be better.”

Members of the Muslim community, she said, continue to find life within the town’s public schools very challenging. She recounted one student’s recent experience, when a male student reportedly told his teacher he would be absent for a Ramadan observance.

“He was still marked absent,” she said. “They don’t recognize our holidays.

“The Town treats us nicely. Our interfaith community, we feel like brothers and sisters. The library is very welcoming,” she said. “Everything is beautiful in town, except the schools. And people move here for the schools, but they don’t know what it’s like.

“It’s not fair for anyone to be treated differently,” she added. “When my kids go to school I want them to be happy. At this age — elementary through high school years — anything can affect them, for their lives.

“I want my kids, and all kids at school, to be treated fairly. We trust the teachers and faculty, and we send our children to them in trust. Telling Newtown to be kind is just words, and at the end of the day we are all brothers and sisters.

“You don’t have to love me,” Beshtawii said. “You don’t even have to like me. But you have to treat me like a human.”

Donaldson wondered about the root of the racial insults and other issues that happen within schools.

“Where is this coming from? It’s systemic, but what is the actual cause?” he asked.

“Cultural malaise can taint a community, and we need to put a lid on that,” Donaldson added.

Returning to the subject of racist and cruel remarks in schools, Woodall said he hears similar things everywhere.

“I don’t know when it became OK to be like this, but it is not OK to say whatever cruel thing you’re thinking,” he said.

Paraphrasing Margaret Mead, Wyatt said it would be a small group, taking small steps, to change that thought process.

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to make change,” she said.

Beshtawii said she knows there is empathy in Newtown.

“I was inspired by the Black Lives Matter rally in Newtown two years ago,” she said. “There were many white people, and people of all ages, there.”

‘A Community Voice’

Building on what she felt she heard during the April 25 program at the library, Wyatt wondered if others felt that “the Interfaith Council should have a community voice. Is there something we can do as a group?”

John Woodall suggested a public event, something that would celebrate the diversity of Newtown’s faiths.

“We need to start with a sense of the sacredness of our connections to each other,” he said.

General ideas were suggested, but the group will continue to discuss the idea at future meetings.

Beshtawii said one of the big problems is not those who attend services and special events, but those who do not.

“People who don’t attend places of worship, who don’t care about these problems, how do we reach them?” she asked.

Johnson noted the tone of the meeting was “a very appropriate conversation for the faith community to be having.”

Later, he also said there is space “for more conversation, for more education to take place.”

Discussion included whether it would be a good idea for members of the council to begin attending Board of Education meetings, where the topic of racism and diversity, equity and inclusion have been very contentious topics in recent months.

The discussion then led to crafting a mission statement for the first time in the council’s history.

Phrases and ideas were shared but that also was not finalized during the May 5 meeting. Many members of the council were not in attendance, and those present wanted to make sure all members of the council — and their respective communities — were comfortable with the final statement.

Public Outreach

NIC also discussed holding workshops, training sessions, and public discussions.

“How do we engage and have these difficult conversations? That’s what we need to figure out,” said Wyatt. NIC members would like to do something in the schools, but Johnson cautioned that with just over a month before students are dismissed for the summer, planning something before the end of the current academic year is nearly impossible. He did encourage NIC members to continue their work, however.

“There are conversations taking place, in schools across the country, on subject matters that are no longer taboo. Gender identity, religion, race … that’s all being talked about,” he said. “We have a wonderful opportunity, in this community, to facilitate, to lead. We are here, and we are not going anywhere. We are connected.”

Woodall was encouraged.

“We’re engaging in an ongoing conversation,” he said, adding that he understood a shift in public attitude will not change quickly. “Culture change doesn’t happen with one event, or one approach. You need a multi-pronged approach over a period of time.”

While the discussion and planning for public events will continue, NIC did agree last week to launch a Facebook page. Within 24 hours, Woodall had created a public page, which can be found by searching for Newtown Interfaith Council.


Managing Editor Shannon Hicks can be reached at shannon@thebee.com.

Reverend Andrea Castner Wyatt listens while Eman Beshtawii speaks during the May 5 Newtown Interfaith Council meeting. Wyatt hosted this month’s meeting in the Johnson Community Room of Trinity Episcopal Church. —Bee Photos, Hicks
Bill Donaldson attended his first in-person Newtown Interfaith Council meeting on May 5.
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