Faith Forward Dallas

Website: https://thanksgiving.org/faithforwarddallas/
The mission of Faith Forward Dallas is to foster and sustain the multi-faith fabric of the community by celebrating diversity and building strong relationships. Made up of a diverse coalition of Dallas' faith leaders who are dedicated to service, hope, and a shared vision of peace and justice, the organization offers support, solidarity and a voice for those without a voice through civic engagement and educational partnerships.

Content Warning: This piece references gun and anti-Black violence.

“To put it simply, the impetus for the founding of Faith Forward Dallas was crisis,” says Almas Muscatwalla, the organization’s founder.[1] A string of tragedies rooted in cultural tensions struck the Dallas area over the span of a few short years. In May 2015, two Muslim gunmen opened fire at a “Draw the Prophet Muhammad” contest that was hosted by a far-right, Islamophobic organization. In July 2016, a Black military veteran killed five police officers at a protest in the downtown area following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers.  

These tragic events prompted Muscatwalla, a layperson who served as a Chair on the Thanks-Giving Foundation’s Interfaith Council, to form a coalition of faith leaders dedicated to cultivating compassion in the hopes of bridging cultural divides. Although the Thanks-Giving Foundation’s Interfaith Council and Chapel have served the Dallas community since 1964, Faith Forward was formed as a subgroup specifically in response to the aforementioned surges of violence and heightened cultural tensions that rattled the community. [2]
 
Moving beyond interfaith dialogue and education, Muscatwalla says that the goal of Faith Forward is to “bring faith into the public square in order to resolve social issues.” In some ways, Muscatwalla finds her own faith to be a microcosm of the work of Faith Forward Dallas: as a Shia Ismaili Muslim, she strives “in complete integrity and through acknowledging our differences to learn about and understand the Other so that we may fruitfully coexist,” and “to hurt when the Other hurts.” This compassion and expanded sense of moral and social responsibility is embodied in the work of the clergy members of Faith Forward Dallas who work to educate and orient their congregants towards solving social issues.

Crucially, Faith Forward Dallas believes that a dedication to compassion requires a coordinated response to the systemic injustices that create eruptive crises and plague Dallas’ most vulnerable residents. Muscatwalla puts this candidly: “Dallas is known for doing a lot of charity, but Dallas is not known for doing a lot of justice.” The clergy that make up Faith Forward therefore chose to form four issue-based committees: Gun Sense, Migrant Status, Housing Solutions, and Racial Equity & Justice.
 
None of this consensus building came easily for Faith Forward Dallas; just deciding which issues to focus on involved various strategy meetings over the course of 2016 and 2017. Some faith communities and leaders regularly choose to opt out of statements or initiatives spearheaded by Faith Forward Dallas. Many clergy members have lost congregants and donors because of their choice to preach about social issues. But Faith Forward Dallas welcomes many of these tensions, as they are a necessary part of pluralistic work. Muscatwalla explains that, over time, “we have grown to navigate these differences and build consensus by first acknowledging the complexity of the different spaces we inhabit, and then by realizing the commonalities shared between these distinct spaces.”  
 
Faith Forward Dallas has translated these intricate interfaith discussions into social action by engaging in both rapid response work and policy advocacy. In the wake of the Muslim travel ban in early 2017, Faith Forward Dallas emeritus Chairs Imam Omar Suleiman, Reverend Michael Waters, and Rabbi Nancy Kasten led protests at the DFW International Airport. [3][4]  In 2019, the work of the Migrant Status Committee culminated in the formation of a response network that hosted over 50 asylum seekers from the southern border at Oak Lawn Methodist Church.[5] Moreover, the connections forged between faith communities through these efforts organically prompted countless interfaith events and discussions between congregants across town.
 
In the aftermath of the unprovoked murders of Jordan Edwards and Botham Jean by Dallas-area police, Faith Forward Dallas played a pivotal role in reimagining the Citizens Police Review Board, now known as the Dallas Community Police Oversight Board.[6] The Board, made up of local community members, became a more powerful entity in 2019 in part through the advocacy of Faith Forward Dallas (as part of the Dallas Community Police Oversight Coalition), and now has greater power in recommending changes to the Dallas Police Department. Muscatwalla cites the unique cultural authority that clergy members are afforded by the city at large as a key to their success in serving as a liaison between the community and civic leaders. Since then, Faith Forward Dallas has also advocated for the reallocation of funds away from the police department towards social and community services.
 
Born out of crisis, Faith Forward Dallas has become a central organization in local struggles against xenophobia, anti-Black racism, antisemitism, homelessness, and more. Through consistent, honest, and vulnerable encounters between faith communities, the organization continues to rally around the issues in which its diverse members share common ground—and work through those in which they don’t. In the summer of 2020, the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and several others, along with the crises of resources and health brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, led to unprecedented uprisings around the country that evoked feelings of both collective mourning and hope. Over the past several years, Faith Forward Dallas has helped demonstrate to the people of Dallas that crisis, although most obviously visible in times like these, is a consistent fixture in the city. And in turn, they have demonstrated—by cultivating a deep sense of compassion and social responsibility through interfaith work—that the city’s response must be just as consistent. 

 

 

 

The “Say Their Names” Memorial at Thanks-Giving Square in downtown Dallas, commemorating lives lost to anti-Black violence. The Thanks-Giving Foundation is the parent organization and host of Faith Forward Dallas. [7]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Press Conference at Thanks-Giving Square asserting the dignity of those affected by the Muslim Ban, with Founder & Executive Director Almas Muscatwalla, Co-chair Omar Suleiman, Rev. Michael Waters, Rabbi Nancy Kasten & Chris Slaughter, former CEO & President of the Thanks-Giving Foundation (2018, photo provided by Almas Muscatwalla)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Faith Forward Dallas leadership and members praying for the family of Botham Jean at the trial of Amber Guyger at Dallas County courthouse. (2019, photo provided by Almas Muscatwalla)

 

 

 

[1] Almas Muscatwalla. Interview conducted by Bilal Rehman. 8 August 2020.

[2]  “History.” Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square. https://thanksgiving.org/faithforwarddallas/#ffdtgshistory. Accessed August 2020. 

[3] “Through Dialogue, Interfaith Leaders Hope North Texans Will Better Understand Each Other.” KERA News. Linah Mohammad. 28 June 2017. https://www.keranews.org/post/through-dialogue-interfaith-leaders-hope-north-texans-will-better-understand-each-other. Accessed August 2020.

[4] “We Stand with Imam Omar Suleiman.” The Dallas Morning News. 16 March 2017. https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/editorials/2017/03/16/we-stand-with-imam-omar-suleiman/. Accessed August 2020.

[5] “Opening the Church Doors to Asylum Seekers.” People Newspapers. Timothy Glaze. 26 July 2019.  https://www.peoplenewspapers.com/2019/07/26/opening-the-church-doors-to-asylum-seekers/. Accessed August 2020.

[6] “Dallas black clergy group declares victory ahead of City Council votes on paid sick leave, police oversight board.” The Dallas Morning News. Dana Branham. 23 April 2019. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2019/04/24/dallas-black-clergy-group-declares-victory-ahead-of-city-council-votes-on-paid-sick-leave-police-oversight-board/. Accessed August 2020.

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