Winston-Salem resident Jerry McLeese is helping to change the way local citizens view religion.
What began as an intellectual conversation about other religions between the Anderson, S.C.-native and fellow members of the Ardmore United Methodist’s Faith In Action group grew into a burning desire to build bridges across faith lines and invite people of diverse faith communities to get to know each other’s traditions and beliefs like never before. McLeese shared his concept with others across the city, and before long, Interfaith Winston-Salem began to take shape. The organization boasts leadership from people of many faiths, from Hindu to secular.
“Over 100 people have helped shape the idea of what we’re doing and a very broad range of faith traditions have been involved in it,” said McLeese, a retired public relations firm owner. “We may have some things that have community service elements, but education really is our focus. The idea is if people can understand each other, they can have more respect for each other.”
The group is planning a slate of activities to take place throughout the year, beginning with the “Fast With Us So Others May Eat” project, which is co-sponsored by Interfaith and three local mosques: Masjid Al-Muminun, Community Mosque of Winston-Salem and Annorr Islamic Center in Clemmons.
“We wanted to do something for each of three major holidays of the Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and Islam was the first to have that holiday coming up,” McLeese explained. “We wanted to have a way to invite people to see commonalities between their religion and Islam, and fasting is a practice that really crosses many religions. They’re learning more about their own tradition just as they’re learning about the Muslim tradition.”
Fast With Us is a community-service driven effort designed to increase the visibility of the Muslim community and provide an opportunity for people of other faiths to work alongside their Muslim brethren, said McLeese, a member of Green Street Church. During the holy Islamic period of Ramadan, the three mosques – or masjids as they are sometimes called – are collecting food for Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina. Members of Interfaith Winston-Salem are lending their support to the project through additional donations of food and financial support for the food bank’s Backpack Program.
The project was intentionally staged during Ramadan, which extends from sometime around July 20 – Aug. 19, according to the Islamic Lunar Calendar. During this time, Muslims are encouraged to fast and turn a greater focus on charity.
“The purpose of fasting is firstly to learn self restraint and obedience to the commands, the directives, the work that God has asked us to do,” explained Imam Irshad Hasan, leader of Masjid Al-Muminun. “…It helps me to become more spiritual. I become more sensitized to the consciousness that there is a Creator that has bestowed and blessed us with so many bounties, and I try to be very grateful for that during the month of Ramadan by being more generous and more sensitized to the plight of those who are less fortunate than myself.”
McLeese and his wife Sybil are also fasting in an effort to gain a greater understanding of this pillar of the Muslim faith.
“I feel refreshed, and you wouldn’t think that would be the case,” reported the grandfather of four. “It’s just something that happens to you.”
Masjid Al-Muminun, the smallest masjid in the effort, has shown enthusiastic support. The congregation of roughly 30 families has already filled three waist-high boxes for Second Harvest. Hasan, who has led the masjid for nearly two decades, said he wasn’t surprised. The congregation already supports Department of Social Services clients with monthly food gifts and participates in myriad other community-driven efforts, he said.
“This is kind of a giving community. Once you alert them of a need and explain to them what the need is for, they respond very generously,” the city native said. “That’s part of our religious obligation is to address the needs of the poor and those who are less fortunate than we are.”
Hasan says his congregation has set a goal of filling 20 Second Harvest boxes. The masjid plans to stay involved with Interfaith Winston-Salem beyond the Fast with Us effort, he added.
McLeese hopes to make Fast with Us a part organization’s annual calendar. He believes the work of the organization could change the city for the better in the years to come.
“I really do believe it can be something very valuable to our community. If we can get people meeting and understanding each other, then I think there will be fewer problems that we have in this community,” he declared. “Faith should not be a divider, faith should be a uniter. If we can move in that direction, I think we will have accomplished something.”