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Cultural Barriers Falling in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 2 2012 (IPS) - In one night, Hurricane Sandy devastated large parts of the East Coast of the United States. But in the long run, the aftermath of the storm could have some positive effects as different religious communities learn to work side by side to tackle challenges brought on by the disaster.

“It is sometimes difficult for one faith community to come to the table and be an equal partner of discussion with other faith communities. But our experience here has been an extraordinary amount of willingness to cooperate,” Peter Gudaitis from New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) told IPS.

NYDIS is a federation of faith-based organisations that work with disaster relief in New York City. Right now it is working in the Rockaways and on Staten Island to provide shelter and food, Gudaitis said.

“People believe that disaster relief is taken care of by the federal government and the Red Cross. But faith community response is actually the largest response to disaster – well, the largest human response, not financial,” he added.

The religious communities connected and coordinated by NYDIS represent over 80 different faith divisions. “NYDIS is the religiously most diverse emergency response organisation, and we are based in the most diverse city. We have Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, lots of different Christians,” Gudaitis said. “All faith communities participate united. Obviously, faith communities provide a sense of hope in times of crisis.”

Gudaitis noted, however, that getting different faith communities to cooperate is not always an easy task. NYDIS, established after Sep. 11, 2001, has experienced its fair share of inner conflicts.

“There is a lot of history between some faith communities. That makes it difficult for them to collaborate. One obvious example is the Jewish community and the Muslim community. Due to tensions in the Middle East, they have had a tense relationship here also.”

“But when there is a disaster in the U.S. they tend to work well together,” Gudaitis said. He added that “it is also a challenge to get some Christian communities to cooperate”. He believed that the experience after Hurricane Sandy might strengthen ties among different faith communities.

Debbie Almontaser, chair of the Muslim Consultative Network, which connects Muslim communities in New York City, had similar perspectives and experiences.

“We have gotten our student organisations to go out and volunteer now. They go to shelters, community houses, with Jewish and Christian volunteers,” Almontaser told IPS. “Sep. 11 helped galvanise interfaith cooperation. And this, for sure, is making people come out and work closely together.”

Almontaser also believed that the Muslim community in the United States can especially benefit from taking part in disaster relief. “In times of Islamophobia, seeing Muslim volunteers out there can change negative stereotypes,” Almontaser said. “This can really build bridges between people.”

The Muslim Consultative Network is currently emailing its members to find more volunteers for disaster relief work. The network is also “communicating with Muslim-based houses of worship on Staten Island to set up kitchens, food service”, Almontaser said.

“New Yorkers need to help each other now. Do unto others as you want others to do unto you. We have not had such a disaster since September 11….The time is hardest now, but there will also be long-term rebuilding required. I think we will see sustained cooperation between communities.”

Another faith-based relief organisation working hard at the moment is the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, which assists post-disaster rebuilding efforts across the United States.

“Right now we are looking to make sure that our community is doing good,” Elie Lowenfeld, the organisation’s founder and president, told IPS. “The strength that people take from faith in a time like this is invaluable.”

The Jewish Disaster Response Corps has experienced of interfaith cooperation in times of crisis before. After the outbreak of storms in the United States in April 2011, the Jewish organisation learnt to work together with the Islamic Circle of North America.

According to Lowenfeld, the experience sparked an interreligious dialogue, and helped to build bridges that hopefully will be useful in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “We are out holding hands now,” he concluded.

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