The Minnesota Writers’ Group mourns the passing on January 26 of Br. Hesham Hussein, president of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and a tireless champion for equality and interdenominational coexistence and cooperation. The following eulogy for Br. Hesham was delivered by Gail Anderson of the Minnesota Council of Churches at a February 2 memorial service at MAS Center in Inver Grove Heights, and is reprinted with Ms. Anderson’s permission.
By Gail Anderson
I am Gail Anderson, of the Minnesota Council of Churches, where I organize interfaith programming.
Thank Mahrous and Asad, for giving me the honor and privilege of speaking at this memorial service. There is a saying in English, “having a heavy heart.” That is how I have felt since I got the news last Sunday. Every time I think of Hesham it hurts, and it has been hard to think about anything else.
Hesham and I worked closely together on the program called Taking Heart, his idea to let people of different religions get to know each other as people.
There is something in human nature, he used to say, that makes us notice the differences in each other. But he thought there were more similarities than differences. “I have two eyes, you have two eyes. I have one nose, you have one nose. I have hopes and fears, and you have hopes and fears.”
The Taking Heart program simply gets people together. They are Muslim and Christian, they talk, they eat. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that people get together, and eventually some true relationships are formed, and hearts are changed.
This work was very important to Hesham. He wanted Muslim people to be accepted as part of our society without giving up any part of their Muslim identity. That’s what we all want, to be accepted just as we are.
Hesham put endless hours into meeting with members of churches, attending picnics, adult education classes, annual conferences of denominations, and even went to a family camp with members of several churches for five days. And believe me, hearts were changed.
Why did he spend so much time and energy getting to know Christians? Or more precisely, why did he spend so much time and energy letting Christians get to know him? Why was this so important to Hesham?
Because there are so many forces in the world pulling us apart — voices telling us to fear each other, to prepare to battle each other. Hesham would always say, “Pay attention to who is benefiting from this, because there are people who benefit from our fear of each other.” Who is selling books? Who is gaining ratings? Who is claiming power? Who is making money? There are powerful forces that thrive by keeping us apart.
But God is more powerful that those forces. And God wants us to be together.
God wants us to know each other, to treat each other with love. It says that in my holy book. It says that in your holy book.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes I get discouraged. MAS invited Taking Heart participants to an Iftar last fall at Masjid Ummat Muhammed. Unfortunately it was a horribly stormy night. I mean the kind of stormy Minnesota night where people are huddled in their basements. I was driving to the masjid in pounding rain while the tornado sirens wailed around me. Only four Christians braved the weather to come to the Iftar that night. Hesham and his daughters Hoda and Bashra spent a lot of time talking to us. It was delightful.
Afterward I told Hesham I was sorry that the event wasn’t a success. He said, “Four people know more about Islam than they did before. It was a success.”
If the work of building interfaith understanding was so important to Hesham, maybe it needs to be that important to all of us.
So how does a community which was so inspired by the life of one man go forward?
In times of pain and confusion such as this, like you, I turn to my sacred text for comfort. I would like to read you a passage from one of the letter of the apostle Paul. After the death of Jesus, Paul traveled throughout the Roman Empire founding communities of followers of Jesus. But he couldn’t stay with his communities; he always moved on.
This is from a letter Paul wrote to the community at Philippi, a community he founded and then had to leave:
“Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever his honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
May the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, be with all of us as we learn to live in a world without Hesham.
–Gail Anderson is Unity and Relationships Organizer for the Minnesota Council of Churches; she granted Engage Minnesota’s request to reprint her eulogy here.