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Hammers For Peace

Jews, Muslims And Christians Work Side By Side To Build Homes For Poor

By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

October 08, 2007

On a recent Sunday morning, Abdullah Antepli and Reza Mansoor arrived to volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity site in Hartford's North End. At about the same time, up drove Zelma Hughes, the construction's project coordinator.

And although Antepli and Mansoor are Muslim - and this is Ramadan and they are fasting - the men reached to help Hughes carry water and doughnuts that the other volunteers - Christians and Jews - would enjoy during the mid-morning break.

Later, hammering shingles onto the three-bedroom house, Alyssa Norwood, a West Hartford resident, and her husband, Joel, a member of Beth David Synagogue, said admiringly, "You guys are doing more than I could when I fast."

Since July, Hartford Habitat for Humanity has been building a House of Abraham, which uses volunteers from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. Other affiliates around the country have done the same, in Lubbock, Texas; Toledo, Ohio, and Baltimore, said Duane Bates, of Habitat for Humanity International.

But Hartford's may be the first to include an educational component, coordinated by Antepli, Islamic chaplaincy coordinator for Hartford Seminary; Yehezkel Landau, also of the seminary, and Donna Manocchio, associate pastor at Rocky Hill Congregational Church. Twice a year, the three team-teach a Hartford Seminary course, "Building Abrahamic Partnerships." As part of the construction project, they'll lead a Habitat-sponsored discussion of the three faiths, their stories and traditions beginning at 6:45 p.m. Thursday at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford.

Coordinating the volunteers' religious needs - especially planning around the fall's religious holidays such as Rosh Hashana and Ramadan - has been challenging, said Hughes, but "it's been so awesome, all these people I've met. All these people come into your life."

That includes Bob Stavnezer, a carpenter who volunteers as a crew leader with Habitat. Stavnezer, who is Jewish, wandered the site one recent Sunday, giving tips on the theology of the hammer. "You have to have faith," Stavnezer told volunteers, most of whom were new to a construction site. At one point, Mansoor had trouble sinking nails into shingles, and Stavnezer cried, "You've lost your faith!"

As some of the Muslim volunteers explained Ramadan, Stavnezer allowed, "I fast between breakfast and lunch."

"You are going to be grumpy all day," said Peter Fraser, who was skipping the service at South Glastonbury's Congregational Church to volunteer. Mansoor, president of the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut and a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital, smiled.

Building a house for someone who otherwise might not be able to afford one fits in perfectly with the theology of the three faiths, says Antepli. For Muslims, it "is considered as equal to building the holiest site," said Antepli. "God really cares in terms of how you react to the people around you, regardless of their faith. You cannot just learn your dos and do-nots and dogma and practice and say `That's it.' That's not it. That's a tiny minority of religion. If you claim you love your Lord, go and serve human beings."

Beyond fulfilling religious mandates, volunteers say they reap spiritual benefits from multi-faith projects such as the House of Abraham. Working across faith lines has personal rewards, as well, said Landau.

"One of the ironies of that is, in many cases, people in the interfaith network find greater spiritual affinity with some people from other faith traditions than they find among their own," he said. "That's actually one of the reasons I do it. I find spiritual sisters and brothers outside the Jewish community, and it expands the pool of spiritual siblings and colleagues."

"I find the more I engage with people of different faiths, the better opportunity I have to understand my own," said Manocchio. "What does it mean to say Jesus is your savior? You have to explain it in ways you don't do among Christians. You can do that when you are with people who respect your faith and want to learn. That's the other piece for me. There's great joy in just hearing stories, learning other traditions, being invited to participate in other traditions."

In fact, at the beginning of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah, Manocchio said a prayer at church that called for congregants to remember their Muslim and Jewish sisters and brothers in their sacred time.

Back at the site, the group was joined by the Goiz brothers and their wives, who worked at the Hartford site to build sweat equity for a Habitat duplex they'll move into in New Britain. The family that will live in the three-bedroom Hartford house has been at the site frequently, said Hughes.

While volunteers arranged themselves to hammer shingles onto a roof that was set on the ground, someone asked Steven Bernstein, a librarian at Central Connecticut State University, if he's ever built a house before.

"Do Lego houses count?" he asked, laughing.

"Oh, if Legos count, then this is my millionth house!" said Zeyneb Salim, a Hartford Seminary student. As Salim, in a head scarf and a Muslim Coalition of Connecticut ball cap, and Bernstein, in a T-shirt that said "Hartford" in Hebrew, hammered side-by-side, they discovered something in common. Both have family connections to Frankfurt, Germany.

Later, as they worked their way up on a roof that a crane will lift to the top of the house in the next few weeks, Bernstein asked Mansoor if societies in predominantly Muslim countries slow down to accommodate for Ramadan. Mansoor smiled. A native of Sri Lanka, he's never lived in a predominantly Muslim country, he said, but the Quran does not suggest Muslims take a break from their lives during their holy month.

For a moment, as the dozen or so workers lined up shingle sheets, the hammers fell silent, and then Salim looked over to Bernstein and smiled.

"OK," she said, raising her hammer, "let's destroy the silence."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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