There is nothing more familiar and human than breaking bread around a table with friends and neighbors. But when a global pandemic enters the scene, this familiar picture is interrupted, leaving individuals to reinvent how they gather. For the Nashville-based interfaith non-profit, Faith and Culture Center (FCC), the COVID-19 pandemic meant a total restructuring of their cornerstone program, A Seat at the Table (ASATT), and developing new modes of virtual interfaith gathering and education.
Faith and Culture Center was founded in 2014 by Daoud Abudiab, a Palestinian-American Muslim community member, in the aftermath of the 2008 firebombing of the Islamic Center of Columbia in Columbia, Tennessee, where Abudiab and his family were regular congregants. He describes the vigil in the days following, organized by various Nashville non-profit organizations and religious congregations and attended by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It was this show of support, both communal and financial, that allowed Abudiab’s mosque to rebuild. “I thought, you know, I owe it to these people to connect with them and establish a relationship,” he reflects, “and so the meaning of community for me changed. And that’s when I made the decision that I am going to maintain that relationship. Those are the people that I need to connect with at times of peace when everything is going well. These are the people you need when things go south.”
From there, Abudiab partnered with Religions for Peace USA, which at the time was looking for a pilot city to house their Our Muslim Neighbor Initiative. Determining middle Tennessee as a hotbed for Islamophobia, Abudiab, alongside his national and community partners, founded the Faith and Culture Center to house the Our Muslim Neighbor Initiative. At the heart of FCC’s programming and activities is A Seat at the Table. As a program, ASATT is designed to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims of varying identities and backgrounds around a dinner table to share a meal. A community member volunteers to host an ASATT at their home, with between twelve to sixteen people in attendance. Half are Muslim, and half are non-Muslim. A trained FCC volunteer attends and helps facilitate the conversation. For Abudiab, the purpose of every ASATT is “to unmask othering and make it unacceptable for everybody, and to create courageous yet safe spaces.” He explains further that “[FCC’s] approach is very much centered on relationship building and bringing people together. We welcome everybody’s multiple identities.” These interpersonal relationships are at the heart of FCC’s vision for dismantling Islamophobia, and they are built through appeals to humility, respect, understanding, empathy and compassion. “When you meet people where they are,” Abudiab proposes, “and you come with humility, with respect, with understanding, develop empathy, and always act with compassion, how could you go wrong?”
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, FCC was uncertain of what changes would have to be made to their programming, and how long those changes would last. Executive Director Dr. Mallory Wyckoff describes their pivot to virtual programming in two phases. At the beginning, “it felt like we were putting out fires,” Wyckoff explains. They moved ASATTs online for the first two months of the pandemic. During the month of Ramadan, when it became clear that FCC would not be able to host its annual Music City Iftar—an event that typically attracts upwards of 400 attendees—they decided to create a virtual alternative: Virtual Iftars. To do so, FCC paired Muslim and non-Muslim households and had them meet during iftar time over Zoom to break fast, share recipes, and engage in meaningful conversation. Though FCC provided conversation guides for the households, participants reported back to Wyckoff and her colleagues that they often did not need them as the conversations flowed organically.
Once it became clear that the pandemic would last through at least the end of the calendar year, Wyckoff began planning for Phase 2 of their virtual programming. At the end of July 2020, FCC announced a Fall Forum Series called “Table Talks.” For the series, they have curated bi-monthly panels, each focusing on a particular topic. These include discussions on navigating pluralism, Muslim students and American schools, history of Muslims in America, and understanding spirituality versus religiosity as they relate to the Abrahamic faiths.
When discussing turn out for virtual ASATTs and webinars, Dr. Bethy Butler, the organization’s Director of Community Outreach, noted that people tend to get “Zoomed out,” and it can at times be discouraging. She recounts sharing this worry to a friend, when Butler was reassured of the significance of FCC’s programming even in this moment: “‘There is so much weighing on people right now,’ she told me, ‘so don’t stop offering this opportunity, because people really love this.’” Even though people may sign up and not show up, Butler affirms that FCC is, “letting people know that we are still here. This work is still important, even in social distancing or whatever it may be. This work still matters, and you’re all still welcome.” Despite the shorter, virtual ASATTs, people are still enthusiastic about virtual gatherings, especially given the lack of geographic barriers.
While the pandemic forced FCC to reimagine its programming, and their plans have drastically changed since the beginning of 2020, Butler affirms that despite the pandemic, “we still have community members that are wanting to engage with us and with one another. And I think that’s really beautiful.” From its inception, FCC has worked to fill a need in middle Tennessee: to foster community and build relationships across faith identities as a way to dispel Islamophobia. The pandemic did not change or halt this mission. It only changed FCC’s modes of what they do best: of community programming, of educating, and of bringing people to the table.