On September 1, four young adults will carry boxes of kitchen utensils, books and other belongings into their new Washington home, in a scene similar to ones playing out across the city as students begin a new academic year and recent graduates start their first jobs.
But these four will not only share their space for the coming year: They have been given a fellowship to live in a rent-subsidized home to strive to learn more about each other’s religious faiths while they go about their daily lives. Each member of the group practices one of four faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Bahá’í.
The four are moving into an Abrahamic House — the brainchild of Mohammed al Samawi. It is the second one; the first opened in Los Angeles in early 2020.
The Abrahamic House fellowships are open to people aged 21 to 35, who undergo extensive preparation before hosting interfaith conversations and events.
Fellows attend an orientation retreat, where they explore their religious heritages and articulate their hopes.
Their training covers difficult topics such as Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism. It includes discussions on how bigotry may arise and how to maintain a “healthy, safe and affirming environment,” al Samawi says.
The residents of the Abrahamic Houses organize community events that foster interfaith harmony.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic struck soon after the Los Angeles House was established, its residents held online events. They and the Washington fellows hope to introduce in-person programs before long, but meanwhile, the virtual events have attracted participants from as far away as France, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In Los Angeles, the Abrahamic House has hosted online iftar, Shabbat and Easter meals; a Bahá’í devotional; discussions of social justice as an interfaith issue; film screenings; and social events.
Participants often tell al Samawi that they’ve discovered that stereotypes about other faiths are not true. And they find that the online interactions highlight the ways different Abrahamic faiths are in fact very similar. “In the end, all of the faiths — not just Abrahamic — are working towards the same goals of unity, integrity and service,” al Samawi says.
One decade ago, al Samawi, then in his mid-20s, traveled to Sarajevo to attend an interfaith conference. Today, he admits he had some apprehension. A native of Yemen, he had grown up with fixed ideas — about his own Muslim faith and about other religions.
Having grown up in a conservative community, he was surprised to meet Muslims who did not speak Arabic and a Muslim woman who had never worn a hijab.
On his return home, al Samawi promoted dialogue with Jews and Christians. But his belief in the value of interfaith work was not welcome. He received death threats from extremists, and so he fled his country and eventually was granted refugee status in the United States.
Interfaith understanding is not about converting anyone, al Samawi says. “It’s not about ‘my faith is better than yours,’ or any kind of political agenda. It’s simply a journey for each individual to build empathy, understanding and compassion.”
After addressing a gathering at a Moishe House in the U.S. — one of dozens of such houses around the world that offer young Jews an affordable place to live in exchange for organizing Jewish programming events — al Samawi met the houses’ founder, Daniel Cygielman.
Al Samawi told Cygielman he wanted to create an interfaith version of Moishe Houses, and Cygielman offered him guidance.
As his “multi-faith incubator for social change” expands to Washington, al Samawi says he hopes to someday have a house in each of the 50 states. He dreams of opening Abrahamic Houses in other countries too and has already received requests from Morocco, Turkey and Germany.