Christian pastor helps Macomb County Muslims share their stories


When the Rev. Michail T. Curro was a community organizer in the '90s, he was already deeply entrenched in the fight against discrimination and racism.
 
His political and social life has been built around this issue, starting first with Christian work, which eventually led to an interest in other faith traditions, including Islam.
 
Curro, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Racial Justice (ICRJ), wants to build on those roots, hoping for a true dialogue that raises awareness and dispels common myths associated with Islam.
 
"A large part of my work was just trying to bring together the community to identify and address shared issues," he says.
 
Recently awarded a Heritage Grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, the ICRJ plans to use the $25,000 grant to tell a little known story – the Muslim community's impact on Macomb County.
 
The story engine will be driven mostly through a planned series of videos featuring the multifaceted world of Muslims in the Macomb community; ideally from the perspective of doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals. A website is being developed, as well as an anti-Islamaphobia conference, and a "Unity Mosaic" depicting the experience artistically. Interviews with 100 adults and at least 25 Muslim youth are planned.
 
According to Curro, during its inception (1968), the ICRJ's efforts were originally targeted at the white community to teach them about African Americans, structural racism, with the goal of improving race relations. Now the organization is also focused on the post 9/11 world to do similar work for all people of color.
 
"Post-9/11 Islam has been the whipping boy for a lot of fear, especially around elections," Curro says. "A lot of our work has been with the Muslim community. One of the things I thought that would make a lot of sense was to understand that Muslims have a long history in Macomb County. There are many more here than people understand. Everyone tends to feel that the Muslim community is all centered in Dearborn, which is not true."
 
Another myth, he adds, is that all Muslims are Arabs, and all Arabs are Muslims. There's a large percentage of Chaldeans who are often mistaken as being the same people – they're not even close, he says.
 
"We feel it's important in trying to really to fight the fear and the perception that Muslims are bad, and you don't want them in your community," Curro says. "To try to show through the sharing of their stories and their histories, all the contributions that they've been making, specifically in Macomb County. They'll realize that most of the members have been living and working here – doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, highly educated (people). People fear what they don't know and understand."
 
The first phase of ICRJ's project is to get Muslims who live, go to school, and work in Macomb County to share these personal stories, providing "a more rounded picture of who they are."
 
The second step is the production of short videos. One initial idea Curro has is to show the videos at congregations throughout the town and in classrooms. Additionally, the videos can serve as a resource for policy makers and elected officials.
 
"That's the basic plan," Curro says. "Whether we can incorporate it in the first year of the grant, I don't know that we can pull that off right away."
 
Despite recent events in Sterling Heights, in which protests were mounted against the building of a mosque on 15 Mile Road between Mound and Ryan, Curro sees potential to shape the conversation in a more meaningful way.
 
"One of the things that's interesting about our approach to the grant, we have been pulling together Muslim leaders throughout the metropolitan region," he says. "We need to have some communication tools that allow people to see 'I'm a Muslim and I'm your doctor'…anything to try to erase the sense that if you're a Muslim, you're a terrorist. People tend to go that way unfortunately."
 
So much of bigotry is fear, Curro says: fear of the other. With a possible wave of Syrian refugees heading to metro Detroit, these feelings in the community may resurface.
 
"It's certainly going to be another group of people that are going to come in misunderstood," Curro says. "There's going to have to be a lot of work to have them be welcomed, have them get the services that they need. They've got to live out the Statue of Liberty (too). It's been hard for Macomb to process and handle the Chaldean refugees. Hopefully, we can do it with open arms and understanding."
 
That understanding could help shape a new Macomb County and metro Detroit.
 
As a pastor, Curro has evolved in his thinking to include not just the Christian faith, but other beliefs.
 
"Any time I work with any community of people, you see the beauty of their religion, of their cultures, of who they are," Curro says. "It's wonderful to see the diversity we have. It's so nonsensical that we still stumble as a people with it. I don't think God would create a world with such diversity just for folks to take a narrow-minded position."
 
Because the grant award coincided with Ramadan (which takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar), the project has been delayed.
 
"We got the grant when most of the Muslim community was immersed in Ramadan," Curro says. "Then everything happened in Sterling Heights, trying to build an interfaith response to that."
 
Curro expects a lot of hard work ahead to realize his vision of a community without prejudices and differences. Documenting the history of Muslims in Macomb County is merely the first step.
 
"There's this amnesia…when people first came to America, not everyone spoke English," Curro says. "We struggle in this region with race, let alone with religion. (We have) a lot of work to do."

Support for this story about race and cultural identity is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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