USA: Interfaith influences, African experiences

5 Jul 2024

In this Voices from the Communion, Khadijah Islam discusses her interfaith upbringing, her volunteering work in Rwanda and her priorities as an LWF youth Council member

Khadijah Islam, LWF Council member from the ELCA. Photo: LWF/A. Hillert

Khadijah Islam, LWF Council member from the ELCA. Photo: LWF/A. Hillert

Voices from the Communion: Khadijah Islam, LWF Council member from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

(LWI) - Raised by a Lutheran mother and a Muslim father, Khadijah Islam grew up in the American city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, on the Mississippi River. After school, in her early 20s, she spent a year as a volunteer in Rwanda, living with a pastor and his family, as part of the Young Adults in Global Mission program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Both of these experiences have profoundly shaped her life, her work and her faith, offering her “a wider perspective on religion.” After spending the past couple of years working with special needs children, she is now moving on to a job with Global Refuge, the former Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service which offers a welcome and practical support to refugees and asylum seekers in the United States.

Islam, 28, is also a new Council member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), elected at the Thirteenth Assembly in Kraków, Poland last September to represent her church. At the first full meeting of the Council in Switzerland last month, she found a moment between meetings to sit down and talk about her background, her work and her priorities as a young Council member.

Tell us more about your interfaith family?

My mother is Lutheran, her family are mostly of Norwegian origin. My father emigrated to the United States from Bangladesh when he was eighteen. He was raised a Muslim but there was not a big Muslim community in La Crosse, and he was comfortable with my brother and I going to the Lutheran church, because they are both Abrahamic faiths. I would go to Sunday school and when we got home, my dad would tell me about the same things I had learnt about from an Islamic perspective.

Is your father a practicing Muslim?

He is quite devout, but he was an immigrant and there was pressure to assimilate for security reasons. At home, we observed some Islamic traditions, so we didn’t eat pork, we would celebrate the Eids [religious festivals] and I have also observed [fasting for] Ramadan. I was raised knowing the teachings of both faiths and it has definitely given me a wider perspective on religion.

How has this shaped your own Lutheran identity?

I would say it gives me humility and respect for others. I know that my actions are driven by my belief in Christ’s sacrifice, that I am called to do God’s work as a response to that, but it also gives me an appreciation that others are called in different ways. There is a richness and beauty in the contextual realities of other faiths, so how do we honor and recognize that?

How and why did you become involved in the ELCA’s youth ministry?

It started at high school when there was a call from my home church for young people to join a worship team to introduce some more contemporary music. Traditional hymns are near and dear to me, but we wanted to broaden the access to other types of praise songs too. So, singing gave me a chance to travel around our Synod area and meet other young Lutherans.

In 2016, I was asked to be a voting delegate to our youth wide assembly in New Orleans. The ELCA had just recently published its ecumenical Declaration on the Way in preparation for the Reformation anniversary. I went to a workshop and met people who had been involved in that, including [former LWF President] Rev. Mark Hanson. It was so good to see the Lutherans and Catholics coming together, especially as I am godmother to a close friend’s daughter who is a Catholic and I hope that this is something I can share with her one day.

You have also spent time volunteering with the Lutheran Church of Rwanda?

Yes, in 2018, I spent eleven months as a guest of the church there, hosted by a village pastor and his family in Kayonza in Rwanda’s Eastern province. I helped with the children in the church and I was mainly doing English conversation with a group of women who were training as tailors. I also did some work with the local office of the Young Women’s Christian Association, editing reports, taking photos or videos to support their programs for things like economic growth, WASH and early childhood education which serve the most vulnerable communities.

What can you share with us about your university and career path?

I have an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, but in the middle of the COVID pandemic I decided to go back to school to do a dual Masters degree in social work and disaster resilience leadership. After that, I was hired by an alternative education program working with students from kindergarten through 12th grade with high trauma backgrounds and serious learning difficulties.

How challenging has that been for you?

It is not a job for the faint hearted, but it is very fulfilling work. Some days we make progress, but others feel like we are back to square one again. I feel honored to be a part of these kids’ lives as a trusted adult, someone who will show up consistently and is committed to supporting them. Once they know what to expect, their nervous systems can relax a bit and we can work on helping them to deal with their emotions. Post COVID, we have seen really increased rates of young people struggling to get these needs met.

You are going to start a new job shortly, aren’t you?

Yes, I am going to work with Global Refuge, formerly the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which provides wrap-around services for immigrant families in the United States. It works to find resources to support people for the first six months that they are in housing placements, and it tries to contribute to long term solutions for people trying to rebuild their lives.

This is also quite challenging work in the current political climate, isn’t it?

Absolutely, and I think there is a lack of responsibility on the part of the people in the global north to realize how we contribute to the displacement of people across the globe. Our immigration policies are complicated and there is an expectation that people in extremely vulnerable situations will know what to do, where to go to claim asylum. Global Refuge is committed to speaking out for a more just treatment of people on the move.

What will be your priorities during your time on the LWF Council?

At the top of my agenda is addressing the climate emergency, particularly the need to be advocates for those on the frontlines. I don’t think this is just about adaptation to climate change, but also about holding people in the global north accountable and putting the responsibility back on the big fuel producers.

I am interested in the idea of ‘grass-rooting’ and in the idea of meeting churches where they are, to honor and respect them, sharing ideas across the LWF communion.

How important is it for the ELCA and for you personally to be a part of this global communion of churches?

I think it is important as it can also help me to push for change in my national church, to ask questions about things that we have signed up to but may not be quite aligned with our policies and practices.

I think it gives us [Americans] an awareness that we are not just a financial contributor, although this is important too. But it helps us to see that we are called to be in conversation with others, to listen to their points of view. As a lay youth delegate, it also enables me to sit at the same table with pastor presidents, it levels our relationships so that my voice can be clearly heard too.

LWF/P. Hitchen