"The Media Guide to Religious and Spiritual Communities in Metropolitan Chicago" had already been in the works for over three years when Khalid Awad took it on two years ago. Awad, a native of the West Bank, had a master's in international peace studies from Notre Dame and a history of tackling daunting jobs when he arrived here in 1999, hired by the media guide's sponsoring organization, the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions. As an undergraduate at Hebron University he'd launched a series of conversations between Palestinian and Israeli students that ran for five years until he landed in this country in 1998. But now the guide is still unfinished, its funding dried up, and Awad is done talking. At age 30 he's given up interfaith work to run a convenience store in Louisville, Kentucky.
One of Awad's other projects for the council, the "Patient Care Protocol," is a manual used by more than 100 local hospitals to help medical personnel treat people with respect for their religious practices. When treating a Sikh, for instance, a nurse or doctor can look in the guide and be advised that "blood transfusions are allowed," but that one should not interrupt a praying patient for routine care. Because a Sikh's head covering is a symbol of his honor, the guide explains, "Do not place the headdress with the shoes." The media guide was less cut-and-dried. "It was very difficult," Awad says. "And the way we decided to do it was more difficult."
After meeting with people in the Chicago media and soliciting a list of questions they'd like to see addressed, Awad contacted representatives of 12 religious communities: American Indian, Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic, Jain, Jewish, Sikh, Taoist, and Zoroastrian. "We said, 'OK, we want you to answer those questions with brief answers, and we'll put them together so you can be covered in the Chicago media,'" he says. Each community was to form a committee to supply the answers and then get back to Awad.
The hope was that combating ignorance in the media would help combat ignorance throughout Chicago. A friend of Awad's told him a story of a school Ramadan celebration gone wrong: "They wanted to do something special so the Muslim students feel they are welcome," he says. "So what they did, at lunchtime, they brought some ice cream." Awad laughs at the irony--during Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. "It was a very nice touch and a very nice move, but at the same time, Muslim children and their families got offended: 'We are fasting, don't do that!'"
The idea of the guide was embraced by the Muslims and other minority religions in the area, but Awad says the Christians and Jews were lukewarm toward the project. "They said, 'Oh, we have been here forever and everybody knows us. There's no need to write a media guide about us.'" Even after he'd asked how it would look if a guide came out with no sections on Christianity or Judaism, they were less than enthusiastic. "They said, 'OK, we guess.'"
The Muslim portion of the guide came easiest. "I knew the community," Awad says. But it still posed some challenges. "You know how each religion has different subdivisions or subbranches?" he asks. "We asked them to get at least one [representative] from each side--like one Sunni, one Shiite, one Ahmadi, and so on and so forth. The difficult part was getting the people together and getting them to agree."
Awad met with each of the groups, sifted through their answers, then met with them again. Some groups' enthusiasm for the project led to a glut of information--the Jains contributed 67 pages to their portion of the guide. Awad had asked for 12.
Awad told the Buddhists up front that he wouldn't be able to give specifics for all the distinct sects in the guide. "We told them, hey guys, there is no way on earth that we are going to create seven different guides for seven different Buddhist groups." The Buddhists agreed to list the major points of convergence among their traditions and include phone numbers and Web sites at the back of the book.
The Christians rated four sections: Protestant, Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, and Seventh Day Adventist. Of those only the Catholic portion is finished. But Awad has completed at least a draft of all the guide's sections except for the one on Judaism. That, he says, "I have not started yet." He met with representatives from four Jewish organizations, and at first each agreed to get information back to him. "A week later," he says, "I would check on them--'We are sorry, sir, we will not be able to help you because we are swamped with so many things. Please go check with another organization.'" He was still waiting for an answer last December when funding for the guide was diverted to other council projects. The group is coordinating the 2004 Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona, and, says associate director of development Francesca DiBrito Shuster, "When you have limited fingers, how many plates can you bring to the table?" With the guide stuck on the back burner, Awad returned to the West Bank for a visit.
Awad's interest in easing religious discord began there, after a series of incidents that took place over a two-day period in 1992. He was at his family's home in the village of Beit Ommer one afternoon when he heard shooting. He went to his front window and saw one of his neighbors surrounded by Israeli soldiers. The man, whom Awad describes as "slow," was bleeding and trembling. "They'd shot him in the head in front of my house," he says. "I wanted to go and help the guy, and they said, 'If you come one more step we'll shoot.'" Without medical assistance the man died, and afterward the soldiers imposed an overnight curfew on the village.
The previous night Awad's brother Mohammad, a college undergraduate, had been rounded up from school along with 200 other students. They'd been taken to an outdoor facility, where they were told to strip naked while their papers were checked. "It was a winter night, very cold," Awad says. "The idea was, they took their clothes and they will leave them a night outside."
Yet as soon as the officers left, the guards distributed blankets, hot tea, and food. "They said, 'Guys, we'll give this to you. Don't tell nobody, especially the officers.'" In the morning, before the officers returned, the soldiers took back the blankets. Despite the blankets and food, Mohammad had grown chilled and feverish. On his release later that day, he went to his parents' to recover.
After curfew that night, Israeli soldiers searched the houses of the village for stone throwers. Fourteen soldiers entered the Awads' comfortable two-story home and asked to see their palms. "In winter, if you grab a stone, because of the mud it will leave a mark in your hand," Awad explains. Awad's parents and his eight siblings showed hands all around, and then one of the soldiers asked him, in English, what was wrong with the young man on the couch. "I said, 'He's sick.' They said OK, and they left.
"Half an hour later," Awad continues, "somebody knocks at the door. And when we opened the door we were kind of shocked, because it's curfew, nobody's allowed to move. There was the doctor of the village at my door, and the 14 soldiers." Awad asked the doctor what was going on. "He said they came and they told him there was somebody sick in the village, and 'since there's curfew he cannot come to you and you cannot go to him. We are here to accompany you to him.'" After the doctor was done treating Mohammad, the soldiers escorted him back home.
"It was a turning point in my life," Awad says. The soldiers' alternating acts of cruelty and kindness forced him to consider the nature of the enemy, or, he says now, "what are called enemies. Why would a soldier yesterday shoot my neighbor to death and let us all watch? Some soldiers strip my brother on a freezing night and others bring him clothes and hot drinks. Some of them shoot my neighbors and others bring a physician to treat my family."
In 1993, the year of the Oslo accords, Awad started up his series of public conversations between Palestinian and Israeli students. The first consisted just of Awad, one of his friends, and a professor from Hebron meeting with two students from Bar-Ilan University. By 1998, he says, "we finished with over 200 Palestinian students, Christians and Muslims, and more than 400 students from five Israeli universities."
Awad's return to the West Bank last December was the first time he'd been back in four years. He found the situation there much worse than when he'd left. His parents and his brothers and sisters and their spouses were just barely scraping by. "They are not able to make a living, not one of them," he says. "Streets are blocked, markets are closed, people cannot travel, and so on and so forth." Because of checkpoints, it took one of his brothers 13 hours to travel from Nablus to Hebron--a distance about as long as that from the far north side to the south side of Chicago. After two weeks Awad was ready to return to the United States, but his relatives begged him not to go so soon. They assured him he'd get used to the situation. He stayed. He didn't get used to it.
A friend of his who'd also moved to the U.S. had been after him to become a partner in his convenience store in Kentucky. While in Hebron, Awad decided to join him--he'd make more money, for one, money that he could send to his family back home. In March he returned to Chicago and to the council, where still more of his projects had been dropped or put on hold. In early April he drove to Louisville.
Awad says he'd go back to work on the guide if funding became available again. He hasn't shut the door on interfaith work either: "If I see the seeds of peace that other people and myself sowed or planted, if I see those seeds growing up and see the greenery in them, I may," he says. "But to be frank, I'm not depressed. I'm extra depressed."
A woman's voice suddenly breaks in as he speaks from his store: "The sign here says..." Awad excuses himself, explaining when he returns that some kids had changed the price sign on his cigarettes from $22.49 to $12.49. "The woman asked for a carton, and when we gave it to her we had an argument about the price." This conflict resolved amicably, Awad says he has no regrets. "My family needs me. That is my duty, and I'm happy to do it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pam Spaulding.