Utilizing Faith-based Connections and Protecting Human Rights During a Pandemic

From an interview with Ruth Messinger, Global Ambassador of the American Jewish World Service

I come to this work as the former CEO of American Jewish World Service, which I led for 18 years. During my time as the CEO of AJWS, I was very interested in getting us involved in various kinds of international interfaith work—partly because I like interfaith work, but partly because I knew from some of my colleagues in the interfaith space that there were very few Jews involved.

However, our organization doesn’t fit into the typical interfaith narrative. Almost all of my colleagues in this work, part of distinguished faith-based relief and development organizations, have as part of their approach working with people of their faith in the developing world or taking a secondary or tertiary interest in interesting people in their faith, even when they aren’t there as a direct proselytizing organization. Our situation is different.

We are an organization motivated by Jewish values, and those values tell us to take our work out into the field. But there are most often few Jews in the countries where we work, and they are not in the parts of those countries where we work because they are not the people living in severe rural or urban poverty.  The groups we do work with as partners in those countries may be in faith-based or in secular organizations, they may learn something about Jews because they are curious to know who we are, but we do not proselytize. So we come at this work slightly differently than do most of the organizations I’m privileged to work with.

Because of that, and because of the relatively small size of our organization in the scheme of things, we are not as much focused as are some of our colleagues on the G20 work. It is largely because of my interest in interfaith work and my conviction that there should be Jews on these panels that we participated in the G20 Interfaith Forum’s North America Regional Meeting.

I participated with Olivia Wilkinson from the Joint Learning Initiative in the meetings, focusing particularly on COVID-related issues that need to be addressed, and we took a position which I totally agree with, which is that when you are faced with something like a pandemic, one of the best ways to reach people is through their faith-based connections.

The Efficacy of Faith-based Messaging During Ebola

The best example I have of faith’s efficacy in moments like these is from the last pandemic, which was Ebola. At the time of the Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, AJWS was only working in Liberia. We contacted our grassroots friends and leaders in Liberia, and they told us the situation was dire—particularly that Ebola was spreading because of burial rituals. The religious/cultural practice of those Muslim communities was to do something which has a parallel in almost every religion—to dress up the body of the deceased and have people come and pay their respects. In this case, the form of respect was people coming and kissing the body. It would be on the porch for a day. And for reasons I never understood, it turns out that the Ebola virus was most contagious in the 24 hours after death. So, this practice had become a total vector for spreading disease.

The US government, to its credit, outfitted around 3000 marines to start building emergency clinics, etc., and it was a great initiative—but they were all dressed in HAZMAT suits, and they looked scary. Yes, they could build a stand-up clinic quickly, but they had no training or capacity in working with local people. And local people in many of the rural areas of Libera thought that they were actually bringing the virus.

So, we did some work with our grassroots contacts, and we ended up basically developing a public health protocol: If you don’t want to catch this virus, here’s what you have to do when someone gets sick, here’s what you have to do when someone dies, and here’s what you can’t do, even though you might be inclined to, because a lot more people will die.

In addition, we made a grant from AJWS to the National Imam Council of Liberia, and we educated a whole bunch of Imams—telling them to go to their communities and teach the people to follow these protocols, because they aren’t going to listen to marines, and they aren’t going to listen to AJWS representatives.

For me, that’s a very applicable example for today’s situation with COVID, because we’ve been doing the same thing. We’re actually doing COVID-related work in every one of the 19 countries where we work, because the pandemic is spreading in every country in the world. However, we aren’t just focusing on immediate public health remedies and health education. We’re also doing several other things.

Protecting Human Rights in a Pandemic

In addition to working with faith-based connections to aid public health messaging, we’re helping groups hold their governments accountable for taking thoughtful measures.

We’re looking at places where we’re pretty sure that governments are using the COVID pandemic as an excuse to deny human rights to people whose human rights they don’t respect. For example, using selective lockdowns that discriminate against lower-class religious minority communities that rely on marketplaces to survive, or selectively using the police and the army to arrest people “who they thought should not be on the street.” In many pandemics and epidemics that we’ve worked on, we’ve learned pretty quickly that available public aid was being denied to LGBT populations, minority groups, rural groups, etc. So we look for human rights violations in the handling of this pandemic.

I think the G20 has become a good venue for promoting this kind of change, because we’re in the middle of something that affects the entire world. So ideally the G20 would be involved, the WHO would be involved, the UN would be involved, and lots of groups that are much bigger than AJWS would be getting the word to look for discrimination and human rights violations. I don’t think the members of the G20 are necessarily going to sit up and say “Oh! We shouldn’t be discriminating against our Muslim population, or our gay population, etc!” but I think it’s a way of bringing a high level of consciousness to these issues.

One of the reasons that we want to be involved in these G20 Interfaith discussions is that we think we have a useful perspective. And when we’re specifically looking out for ways the G20 can benefit from that perspective, we need to make this point: Reaching out to faith-based groups on the ground is a really powerful way of reaching people who aren’t listening to anybody, but might listen to their faith leader. G20 governments need to pay attention to the role of faith-based leaders, and to be sure that there is no perpetration of discrimination.

In short, I’d tell them to use faith-based groups in an affirmative way, but be careful because some of these faith-based groups themselves discriminate, and some of these governments discriminate against faith-based groups they don’t like.

An Anecdote on the Power of Religious Communities

About 20 years ago when I was relatively new in AJWS, I was working with the HIV AIDS issue, and there was an international conference. I was in a small breakout session, and one of the people there was the Episcopal Bishop of some African country. He was dressed in very impressive Episcopal Bishop regalia, and he was sort of a staid gentlemen. As we went around the room, talking about what we were learning about the HIV AIDS epidemic, he said, in a very staid voice:

We in the church have learned to speak in our parishes, and to tell our local priests that they must do something that they never thought before in their lives that they would do. And that is to encourage their parishioners to talk about sex at the breakfast table.

It was just such a great speech, because I realized “Okay, that’s the power.” In this case, there were no human rights biases. He was the Episcopal Bishop of an African country, and he wanted to save people’s lives. But he did have to go against what he would have imagined in terms of how he and his parish priests would conduct themselves. For me, that was an early example of the power of the religious community to spread information in a good way.

A Call for Unity and Action

If I were talking to G20 leaders, I would say that you can’t make a change without talking to people on the ground. So whatever you’re doing in your country, if it’s all top down—or, even worse, if it all comes from the requirements the US sets in order for you to receive their aid—then you’re not going to be meeting your people’s needs. If there was going to be one recommendation coming out of this, it would be that.

Sadly, it seems to have taken a pandemic to make us realize that the greatest threats, both physical and environmental, are going to be threats that know no borders. So if we’re going to learn anything from acid rain, climate change, or a pandemic, it’s that we have to transcend our national boundaries enough to find ways to work together on these issues.

Ruth W. Messinger was CEO of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) from 1998 to July of 2016, and is currently the organization’s inaugural Global Ambassador. In this role, she is continuing her crucial work of engaging rabbis and interfaith leaders to speak out on behalf of oppressed and persecuted communities worldwide. Ruth is also currently serving as the inaugural Social Justice Fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Social Justice Activist-in-Residence at the JCC of Manhattan. In the past, she did international human rights work for AIDS Free World.

Edited by JoAnne Wadsworth.