2020 ICLRS Symposium: How Religions and Religious Organizations Contribute to the Common Good


Elizabeth Clark, Moderator

Associate Director at the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, BYU Law School

 Viva Bartkus, Panelist

Associate Professor of Management, Notre Dame University, who researches the social capital of communities that enables collaboration and a leadership approach most effective in solving complex business problems. Professor Bartkus has founded and worked extensively with international humanitarian and business organizations, including serving as one of the first lay members on the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services.

Sharon Eubank, Panelist

President of Latter-Day Saint Charities, the humanitarian cooperative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also serving as the first counselor in the general presidency of the Relief Society, the Church’s organization for its 6 million female members ages 18 and over.

Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, Panelist

Founder and Executive Director of Syrian Community Network, a US-based organization advocating for refugee and immigrant rights and a national community-based resettlement organization. She’s also led community-based foundations in her native country of Syria.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, Panelist

President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, previous Policy Director for First Lady Michelle Obama in the Obama White House, as, and State Department Senior Advisor coordinating development and implementation of multiple programs including those concerning refugees and migration, engagement with religious communities, the legal dimension of US foreign policy and regional issues related to Africa and the Middle East.


Clark: A key aspect of religious freedom is not just the freedom to worship but to live out one’s faith in the world, both individually and collectively. For many believers and organizations, that includes service to marginalized communities and others in need. We’ve assembled four panelists who work in this sector to discuss what that means in today’s world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an enormous impact on almost all aspects of social/economic life, but how has it affected your work and influenced your sense of the roles and opportunities of religiously affiliated humanitarian organizations?

Vignarajah: Well, the pandemic has hit immigrants especially hard. For immigrants who have recently arrived in the US or are still settling in, for these “new Americans” it has been devastating. Because they worked in some of the industries that have been hit hardest, like food service, hospitality, and tourism they have lost jobs. According to the Pew Research Center, we know that the average job loss for new Americans is significantly higher than what it is for US foreign workers, as high as 19%. At the same time, we also know that a disproportionate number of immigrants are fighting on the front lines. Refugees and immigrants represent a disproportionate number of so many of the industries that have been critical in the last several months. One in four grocery store workers are immigrants and more than 16% of US healthcare workers. I think it’s around 28% of immigrants who are physicians and surgeons in the US.

It is also been equally devastating on those immigrating to the US. COVID-19 has been both the public health reason, as well as the political cover used to stop so many who have been desperate to seek our shores and soil. For example, we denied access to refugees to the country for the first four months. Still, today, our southern border has essentially been shut, and asylum seekers are summarily expelled without due process, including unaccompanied children who are victims of human trafficking. And for those lucky few who have been able to make it to this country, so many of them are locked up in ICE detention where many have contracted coronavirus and even died from the disease without access to appropriate care. Some ICE detention centers have 93% of its detainees infected.

Religiously affiliated organizations have been essential. For organizations like LIRS, frankly, with the support of incredible partners like the Latter-Day Saints Charities, we’ve been able to step up where the government would not or could not. We created the Neighbors in Need Fund, which is an emergency fund that provides for critical needs, and in the last four months has provided financial help to 361 at-risk families who are suffering from illness, job loss, potential rent evictions. One example is a single mother with four children. She lost her job as a dishwasher during the pandemic and feared that she and her four children would be evicted—her husband/their father is still in ICE detention. She received funds from Neighbors in Need so that she was able to make sure she’s had a roof over her head. Her children were able to receive tablets to help with virtual learning.

Eubank: Let me share one of the ways that the pandemic has brought faith communities together in a way that nobody anticipated. In the early days of the pandemic, there weren’t enough personal protective equipment, and the supply chain was stopped. We could not order at any price to get masks or gowns. Two of the largest hospital systems in the western United States came to Latter-Day Saint Charities and said, “Look, we use 50,000 disposable masks a day, we’re three weeks away from having nothing. We need help.” They had figured out creatively how to source the fabric that they needed for those clinical masks, but they did not have anybody to make them. They said, “Would you activate the religious community here? We need 10,000 volunteers a week for six weeks. Everyone tells us it is impossible, but can we do it?” Latter-day Saint Charities worked with the partners that we have in this community, the Buddhist temple, the Mosque, and others. We asked, “Is it possible? Would you work on this for volunteers to sew masks at home?” We have lots of questions: how would we sterilize them? How would they meet FDA approval? We worked all of that out. Every volunteer made 100 masks in a week—this was something practical that faiths could do together. We were able to take that experience in the western United States and thought we would try it in Brazil, in Mexico, in the Philippines, and it’s worked. The pandemic has forced us to be creative and forced us to make relationships with people that maybe we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Clark: Some have argued that religiously affiliated groups are primarily self-interested, that they use aid as a means to proselyte. Others argue that they’re limited in their ability to help people because their beliefs may limit the types of services provided. How would you assess these challenges based on your experience?

Eubank: About 10 years ago, the United Nations recognized that although there are inherent conflicts in faith-based organizations working in the humanitarian sphere, there are things that only faith-based organizations can do. Personal belief is such a motivating foundation for productive energy from people of faith blessing communities and nations in a way that other organizations cannot do. The United Nations defined specific principles that will not only protect faith-based organizations’ expressions of religious belief but also protect the freedom of religion and belief for the people that they’re serving. The United Nations identified four specific principles to govern organizations’ actions: (1) humanity, the core belief that all people have worth and dignity despite their beliefs or circumstances; (2) neutrality, which assures the organization won’t take political sides; (3) impartiality, which means assistance will be rendered without respect to nationality or religion or culture of the group; and (4) independence that preserves the individual’s ability to act independently of other forces.

Sahlout: Everyone deserves to be seen as a whole person. Everyone deserves to be helped, whether they are a practicing Muslim or a non-practicing Muslim, whether they are a practicing Christian or a non-practicing Christian. These conversations are so important right now, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement,

Vignarajah: As the head of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, I am the first non-Lutheran head and my chief of staff is Jewish. In 1939 at our formation, we helped Lutheran pastors, professors, and others who were resettling after the Second World War. That quickly expanded to helping Cuban refugees, Vietnamese refugees, and the lost boys and girls of Sudan. Today we are helping those coming from Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And even amongst the refugee resettlement agencies, six are faith-based, three are not. I think about our work now along the border, where you will find Lutherans working alongside Catholics working alongside Episcopalians working alongside Muslims working alongside Jews working alongside people who may not have a religious faith, and it is an amazing welcome in terms of immigrants’ first impression of America, this call of welcoming the stranger.

Clark: In what ways do religiously-affiliated organizations bring social capital to the table? And what challenges do they face in collaborating with states and non-religious organizations?

Bartkus: A few years ago, as a board member of Catholic Relief Services, I traveled to Vietnam to visit a highly successful program to build schools and train disabled children. As a result of unexplained ordinances leftover from the war and widespread use of Agent Orange, Vietnam has some of the highest disability rates in the world. Historically Vietnamese societies called people with mental and physical disabilities “useless” and “the lost ones” because they are unable to care for their elders, as children are expected to do. This amazing school came about through an unlikely tripartite partnership: the Communist government of Vietnam, Catholic Relief Services (the international humanitarian organization supported by the Catholic community in the US), and the US Agency for International Development, USAID. This is the same communist government that still persecutes people of Catholic faith in Vietnam, that has closed Catholic churches and seminaries, and has taken away church assets. Think about the government of Vietnam taking money from its former enemy, the United States, in the form of funding for USAID. Think about them partnering with Catholic Relief Services, which has the psychologists, the social workers, the teachers, and the experience needed to create innovative programs to serve the disabled. This was a partnership of three organizations that embraced such divergent ideologies, histories fraught with conflict, with no faith agreement or political agreement. Yet the leaders of these three different organizations overcame their differences to imagine common ground amongst themselves. The leaders are civil to each other and work together towards a common goal. Common ground does not exist until we imagine it, and then we need to work ridiculously hard to create it. As Father Ted Hesburgh, the former president of the University of Notre Dame said, “We teach human dignity best by serving it where it is most disregarded—in the poor and abandoned.” The solution to difficult problems lies in the common ground we imagine and create together.

Sahlout: This week is the fifth anniversary of that iconic picture taken of the very sad image of little Alan Kurdi his body washed up on the Turkish shore. This picture connected a lot of people from various faith groups and civic leaders and faith leaders, all coming together to advocate for increased numbers of refugee resettlements.  Everybody was reaching out and asking how to help refugees, specifically Syrian refugees because that was at the height of the Syrian crisis.

Clark: How can we facilitate and make this kind of cooperation happen?

Eubank: I think what the International Center for Law and Religion is doing with the Law and Religion Symposium is impactful in the world because it is a forum for people who have very different viewpoints to come together and have that space to imagine some common ground.

Clark: I think that the cooperation that I have seen and heard from among you all in your practices is a model for working together and bridging differences of background and belief or approach, or funding source.

Vignarajah: Part of overcoming the challenge is understanding that there’s more that unites us than divides us. Also, not trying to minimize what divides us and not to try to put a silver-lining on the multiple crises that we face, but I also think that in these challenging times we have a huge opportunity. I am inspired by how much collaboration and cooperation I have seen.

Clark: Beyond just motivating service, do religious beliefs and traditions influence how faith-based organizations and individuals care for those in need?

Sahloul: There is a lot of resiliency in the religious organizations where there is a mission to serve, resilience, and then volunteers. When the Imam says something from the pulpit, people respond in big numbers. It is easy to mobilize people from a religious community versus a non-religious community.

Vignarajah: I think what draws religiously affiliated organizations to this work is in part, universal human rights: advocating for, serving as champions, providing direct services that create additional or universal access to these human rights. or get as close as we possibly can. As immigrants come to the US, so much is so foreign to them, but when they see a Bible or a cross or a crescent or something that looks familiar, that is a way in which we can connect and provide assurance and familiarity that breaks down barriers. Sadly, we operate in times where so many issues that have always been nonpartisan or bipartisan all of a sudden have become polarizing and politicized, how religiously affiliated organizations can speak about issues will provide cohesiveness in a very divided time.

Eubank: People need to have experiences that build trust and build the social fabric with people who are different from them but care about something similar. And there is no more efficient or effective way to get down to the individual, the family, and the congregational level than to work through faith-based organizations. They have centuries of trust. They have a tradition of caring for individuals in need and the growing ability to find common areas of dialogue and areas of good where they can cooperate. I think that one of the great benefits that faith-based and religious organizations bring to the table.

Bartkus: My hope from this is that this is only but a first dialogue amongst us on these very important issues. I find that if anything, dialogue is not only the saying but the listening, and I find that I have learned so much from each of you today, just by listening. We can learn so much from each other.

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