When We Gather Again, Who Will We Be?
We’re looking ahead. Because when all of this is over, we’re going to run hard toward gathering. We need each other. We hear from Vjolca Capri, who gives her first-hand experience of attending a Love Anyway Gathering. As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, she wasn’t sure what to expect when she attended one. What she experienced surprised her.
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In this episode, Vjolca Capri gives her first-hand experience of attending a Love Anyway Gathering in central Florida. As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, she wasn’t sure what to expect when Saadia Qureshi invited her to join a roomful of community members, most of whom didn’t look or worship like her.
Could they really have meaningful conversations? Would others judge or stereotype her? Would it be… awkward?
In this episode, we find out.
Listening, doing conflict better, cultivating peace—these are all things we’ve been learning alongside our neighbors in Iraq for years.
And now, we’re excited to bring that to communities around the world. To heal all that’s tearing us apart through Love Anyway Gatherings.
We’re looking ahead. Because when all of this is over, we’re going to run hard toward gathering. We need each other.
As we’re learning more and more during this pandemic… there is no them—only us. And that’s why we’re looking forward to the time when we continue to launch small, neighborhood gatherings all over the world, where we meet with those one or two steps outside our circles, learn from each other, and pursue peace through action.
Staying home and away from close proximity is an act of love right now, but this time of pandemic won’t last forever.
And in our time building community and pursuing peace, we’ve seen that being together is vital. As Vjolca recounts in this episode, there’s strength in our difference.
Quotes from this episode:
“I think we take for granted our point of view, our experiences, our lifestyle. Even within your same household, people don’t share your same experiences. So imagine others who are unlike you in all the ways possible. There’s so much to learn from somebody else. You can’t understand gratitude until you see someone who has less, you can’t be inspired until you see someone working hard. You know, there are so many parts of life and walks of life that you can’t imagine unless you put those shoes on.” —Vjolca Capri
“You really have to see the power that you have in spreading a message of love. Because if you’re positive, you’re going to encourage more of it. And that’s why these Gatherings have to happen. Because we have to show people that we’re willing. And it’s amazing how much people will be willing to do if they see others are also willing. And this is an opportunity to be willing to do something good.” —Vjolca Capri
“I just can’t understand why difference has to mean division. Why can’t difference just mean difference? Why does it have to divide us?” —Toni Collier
Toni: I just can’t understand why difference has to mean division. Why can’t difference just mean difference? Why does it have to divide us? We think that a way to stop that division is to get people in close proximity with each other, to sit down and look at each other in the eyes and be fully known by someone and fully know someone. Because you know you you can’t have fun with someone you hate. But you can have fun with someone you love.
Erin: At Preemptive Love, we’re looking ahead. Because when all of this is over, we’re going to run hard toward gathering. We need each other. As we’re learning more and more during this pandemic…there is no them, only us. And that’s why we’re looking forward to the time when we continue to launch small, neighborhood gatherings all over the world, where we meet with those one or two steps outside our circles, learn from each other, and pursue peace through action.
Love Anyway Gathering is a new kind of community, and as we’ll hear on this episode, it’s already proving another future is possible.
I’m Erin Wilson, and this is Love Anyway, a podcast by Preemptive Love. And as always, you can follow along with us on social media, where we’re “preemptive love”.
Erin: As we shared in last week’s episode, Toni Collier is Preemptive Love’s director of gathering. We learned about the power of sharing a meal last week, but our feasts? They were just the start of something. The beginnings of Love Anyway Gatherings.
Toni: We’re hoping and believing in even more differences, that we just would not even see coming across political lines and religious lines and gender lines. And you know, and we believe that going to happen. And we believe that this feast was the catalyst to it happening for us. And so we’re excited to see, as people start to transition into gatherings who will get, we’re pumped about it.
Erin: That’s Toni.
Toni: I would say we are stopping the next war before it even begins. And it’s just serious and we gotta get ahead of it. We have to.
Erin: So, what is a gathering?
Toni: And gathering is essentially two co-hosts who have a difference. Meeting in their living room, in an intimate space, coffee shops, every single month with people that they fear, misunderstand, or are different than or maybe disagree with just straight up. I get to lead a team of just three incredible people putting together strategies and systems and what it looks like to onboard co-hosts, train them, give them the tools that they need to start gatherings in the context and confines so having those hard conversations gets a little bit easier. We’re trying to get people in close proximity with each other. And it’s just great.
Erin: Staying home and away from close proximity is an act of love right now, but this time of pandemic? It won’t last forever. And in our time building community and pursuing peace, we’ve seen that being together is vital. There’s strength in our difference…
Toni: We have a group in Canada, we have a group in Atlanta, and that group is very different from what we have seen. We have seen a lot of Christians and Muslims come together because of the nature and the history of our organization. But we had a group called Friends of Coffee Moms, who were just launching this initiative, where white moms, and then moms of kids of color were coming together and meeting and talking about the differences in raising their kids. And so the founder came to me and said, “You know, I just want to do something different, I want to create a lasting impact.” And she had gone on a ride along as a black mom with the police officer named Michael. And I mean, just Michael just walked her through a normal stop and the areas and what they look for, what they don’t look for. It was just so inspiring that they decided to start a Gathering. So you’ve got moms with kids of color, and police officers meeting here in Atlanta. So it is just changing and it’s evolving.
Toni: What would it look like? If the very people who are standing on the edges of war staring eye to eye, looking at each other as their enemies? What if they knew what it was like to love anyway?
I mean, you can’t drop a bomb on someone you love.
Erin: So…what does all of this actually look like? We sent producer Kayla Craig on a mission to find out.
Saadia, gathering coordinator whom you heard in our last episode, gave us her friend Vjolca’s number. Vjolca brings a beautiful perspective and voice to the gathering Saadia helps host in Florida. But…Vjolca wasn’t sold on the idea at first. Here she is.
Vjolca: Well, my name is Vjolca Capri. I’m a licensed mental health counselor in Central Florida and I also write children’s books. And I focus on holistic health and functional medicine.
Kayla: So let’s just start a little bit about your background. Tell me about what it was like growing up
Vjolca: I grew up in the sultry city of Miami. It’s kind of a very melting pot kind of place. It’s very Latin, really. There’s so many different kinds of people there. I was very introduced to a lot of different cultures from the get go. I was always walking this tightrope, kind of between their warring ethnics, you know, their ethnic identities, so I’m no stranger to that. And you know, I kind of like a challenge so I married a Pakistani. Now I’m raising two little tightrope walkers of my own.
Kayla: Wow, that’s really fascinating. I’m sure we could just talk about that for a long time.
Vjolca: Yeah, I mean, they’re multi-ethnic and they’re Muslim and they’re homeschooled. So they got it all going for in terms of being different.
I know what it feels like to be alienated and that you don’t belong I, I know what it feels like from the outside. It’s just never felt like I belonged. So that feeling of of not belonging, I can relate so much to my patients who come to me and I feel like I must exude this sense of belonging now because they attract that kind of clientele, who is looking to belong looking to connect, looking to you know, they’re struggling with anxiety and depression and they don’t know who they are. So I feel like I have a lot to offer in that sense because of my experiences.
Kayla: We got connected because we have a mutual friend, my friend and coworker Saadia…tell me about how you guys know each other.
Vjolca: I met Sadia on the seventh day of my wedding. Needless to say, I was exhausted by day seven.
Kayla: Okay, so wait before we go further, for those of us who aren’t familiar, what does that mean when you say the seventh day of your wedding?
Vjolca: I married a Pakistani and they have a very drawn-out, fabulous celebration for weddings. It’s not necessarily seven days long, that’s not like the rule. There can be more days to be exact, but mine ended up being seven. And it starts with like an engagement and then it ends on the groom’s reception. So there are two receptions, the girls get a reception and then the grooms. I met Saadia from the groom’s side. I met her on the seventh and final day of my wedding ceremony.
Kayla: Wow. Yeah, you were exhausted.
Vjolca: I was exhausted. I was not accustomed to this seven wedding dresses, seven walks down the aisle. I was done the seventh day. And it was such a blur. There was 400 plus people at this and I don’t know that many people. They were strangers, all from the groom’s side, but there was this like shining light of angelic friendship that came out of it. I met Sadia that day. And she she invited me to her home after the wedding and really the rest is history. She has become one of my most cherished friends really.
Erin: They live in the same town, they’ve raised their kids together…and then Saadia, who works at Preemptive Love, invited her along to something that’s become an important part of her life—a Gathering.
Vjolca: You know, Sadia and I have the kind of relationship where we don’t ask questions. She just says…she or I just say…can you do this? And we just say yes. So it was like, I’m having an event at my house. Can you come? Sure. And that was it. We don’t need to have an explanation. I’m there for her and she’s there for me. She did say, you know, I want to be part of this organization. It has a really great cause trying to get people to come together and explore their differences and find commonality. And I was like, Sure, I’ll be there for you. And I was like, You really want me there? We were laughing about it.
Erin: She didn’t know what she was getting into.
Vjolca: She just told me that there’s going to be a lot of people who may have never met a Muslim before and it would be really good if they had, you know, an example that was very unlike what they thought and I guess she thought that was me. So I put on my my most cheerful scarf because I didn’t want anyone to think oh, Muslims only wear these black garbs I mean, I went out fancy. I was trying to show that we are cool and fancy and stylish also. And I you know, I went into this meeting…
Kayla: And why did you feel like you needed to do that, that it was important?
Vjolca: I think a lot of Muslims feel like they’re constantly educating people on being a Muslim and what is portrayed as Muslim on TV. And so, for I can’t speak for all Muslims, but I, at least for myself, I felt that, okay, I have to make sure that I leave people with the impression that we are not these militant people that they’ve come to know from television. I was there to defend myself. I came in defensive, like, I’m gonna wear my scarf and I’m fearless and I’m me, but I’m going to defend my honor. I’m going to defend my religion and my ethnicity. You know, I’m going to break the mold, whatever their mold is in their mind.
Erin: So Vjolca gets to Saadia’s house, this time packed with people she doesn’t know. She’s dressed in her finest. What happens next? We’ll find out after the break.
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Erin: When we left off, Vjolca was just about to arrive at her first ever gathering. And she had mixed feelings about it.
Vjolca: There’s a sign on the door that says, you know, leave your shoes here. And that’s a very Muslim thing. We don’t wear shoes in the house. It’s a thing. We keep the dirt outside, right? It’s a lot less mopping. We’re practical kind of folks, right? So I get there, I’m taking off I got these pumps. I don’t know why I wore them. I tried to pull them off and teeter totter on one heel, slip them down. And then when I get in there, you know, I’m pumped, I’m ready. I’m ready to defend myself. I realized that I’m the one with the preconceived notion. They didn’t want me to defend myself. They wanted me to celebrate me. You know, I didn’t have to go and explain myself. They, they had never met another Muslim before some of them and a girl in a hijab. Never even conceived the meeting one. And they just wanted to get to know me. And I was, I was floored. I couldn’t believe how prejudiced I was. Because I went in there defending with the idea to defend prejudices. But I realized it was me, that I came into it thinking that I was going to be judged. But I did all the judging when I walked in there, and it was a release, and I had a lot of fun. And I met some great people.
Erin: Vjolca connected where many do – around the table. A Love Anyway Gathering usually starts out with welcome time for folks to mingle, eat, and maybe participate in an icebreaker.
Vjolca: We ate food together, we share everyone bought something from their own culture, we share different foods, we got to ask questions: What is this? This is delicious! You know, there was a gluten-free corner, a sugar-free corner, a meat-free corner. I mean, it was the most inclusive thing you could ever been to, really. And we just chatted over food. We cried together, we laughed together.
Erin: After the food, a Love Anyway Gathering typically has a listening activity and group discussion.
Vjolca: When they broke us up into small groups, we really got, you know, an intimate chance at learning about someone else’s experience. And then we came back together in a big group just so that we can learn not just from our intimate experience, but see how around, the circle I’m in there was like 20 women there that that day and they all shared how we have to be more supportive of each other from the get go if we want to be finding our own support. You know, we can’t be defensive, we can’t be wearing shields.
Erin: Each neighborhood gathering is led by two co-hosts, who cannot be related and are pursuing friendship and deeper understanding with one another across some cultural, political, ethnic, or religious divide. Saadia is one of the co-hosts.
Saadia: I think that was the first gathering where we did structured listening. It was a unique experience for everybody who came just because we hadn’t done the face to face um Each person gets two minutes to talk without interruption. You’re supposed to listen intently without responding. It was a learning experience, like I said, for everybody, because it was you had to be brave when you did this exercise.
Vjolca: It’s incredibly important because I think we take for granted our point of view, our experiences, our lifestyle, we take it for granted. Even within your same household, people don’t share your same experiences. So imagine others who are unlike you and all the ways possible. There’s so much to learn from somebody else. You can’t understand gratitude until you see someone who has less you can’t be inspired until you see someone working hard. You know, there’s, there’s so many parts of life and walks of life that you can’t imagine unless you put those shoes on. And it’s impossible to do that from reading a book or watching a segment on YouTube. Or, you know, even listening to someone on TV, listening to someone’s story through the grapevine. It’s hard until you see the raw emotion on somebody’s face, listening to the choice of words they chose that day, to express what they had to say. It’s not the same. It’s definitely not the same.
Erin: We asked Vjolca what she’d tell someone on the fence about attending a gathering.
Vjolca: I would tell them to open their homes and open their hearts. Because the best leaders lead by example. And if we want to lead this country, this world into a better direction, somebody needs to stand up and do it. And I would also encourage them to be real because real change doesn’t happen if people are disingenuous with their personalities, you know, and and also to trust the process. My favorite poet Rumi has a poem. And he says, to be grateful for whatever comes because whether it’s a joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness, he says, to entertain them all, because they’ve been sent as a guide from beyond. And really, if you look at the name of the poem, it’s called the guest house. It’s like a gathering. Entertain it all. Except it all because it’s there to to make you grow and if we’re not growing we’re dying and I don’t know about you but I want to grow.
Erin: So Vjolca walked us through the before – and during – of the gathering. But where were her thoughts as she drove back home?
Vjolca: I left in tears because I was so touched that women wanted to to learn more about me before they judged me and then I was so disappointed in myself for assuming the worst and I learned from there that you know, positivity begets positivity. You really have to see the power that you have in spreading a message of love, because if you’re positive, you’re going to encourage more of it. And that’s why these gatherings have to happen. Because we have to show people that we’re willing. And it’s amazing how much people will be willing to do if they see others are also willing. And this is an opportunity to be willing to do something good.
Erin: Vjolca just kept going back. Kept gathering, kept showing up.
Vjolca: I met someone from Kansas at one of the gatherings and being from Miami, being multicultural and traveling mostly outside of the United States and not so much within this country, I had never met somebody from Kansas before. And just to hear what she had to say about growing up in Kansas and never even coming across a nonwhite American before she moved to Florida was amazing to me. We live in this place where we’re connected, tighter and closer and more quickly than ever before with Twitter and airplanes and, and, you know, we can visit other places, but there are still people who have never met another unlike themselves and I just couldn’t believe it. And I wanted to meet more people and learn more experiences. And it helps you grow as a person just to imagine that there’s so much more than what you experience in life.
Erin: What’s at risk if we don’t show up for each other?
Vjolca: If you’re not growing, you’re dying, then we’re dying as a human race, we’re not striving to be the best that we can be. We’re not striving towards greatness or a common goal. We’re losing out on relationships, we’re losing out on knowledge, opportunities. Whatever discomfort you have on learning about another person, it’s a small price to pay for what you gain. We need to use this kind of situation to spread more love.
One person really can change the world because you walk away feeling renewed, and you inspire someone else and they inspire someone else. And before you know it, you have like a whole community that is lifting each other up. So don’t think that your one vote or your one, you know, opinion, or your one experience or won’t do anything. It does a lot. It matters. And I don’t want to think that one person can’t change the world because you really can.
Erin: So, how do we begin, even when we might not be able to start physically gathering yet? It’s not too early to start looking ahead.
Toni: you text the word gatherings to the number 72000. It’s 72000. And you get back a few questions about email, and then you get a link to our survey page. And you can fill out this survey that will just ask you a few questions about your peacemaking journey.
Toni: We have big hopes, and we’re excited. But people can also go to preemptive love.org backslash gatherings. We’ve got a web page there, we’ve got some testimonies there that you can look at. And I’ll say, just to drop a little fun secret, we are also working on a curriculum that will walk your gathering or you as an individual, along this peacemaking journey on how to listen better and do conflict better and create and cultivate peace in your local community. So we’re excited about that.
Erin: Listening, doing conflict better, cultivating peace … These are all things we’ve been learning alongside our neighbors here in Iraq for years. And now, we’re excited to bring that to communities around the world. To heal all that’s tearing us apart.
Toni: I just can’t understand why difference has to mean division. Why can’t difference just mean difference? Why does it have to divide us and we think that a way to stop that division is to get people in close proximity with each other, to sit down and look each other in the eyes and be fully known by someone and fully know someone. Because you know you you can’t have fun with someone you hate. But you can have fun with someone you love.
Erin: We need each other. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Toni: If it’s a gathering, the truth is, it’s scary. It’s uncomfortable no matter which way you go. It just is. You know, a gathering gets easier over time. But the first one is still hard. And I think I just want to encourage people to do it scared. Just do it scared. Just be completely broken and scared and fearful. And then just do it anyway. Love anyway, jump in anyway, just do it anyway.
Erin: Love anyway, jump in anyway. Here’s Toni again, with a special message.
Toni: Our world is more connected than ever. Yet most of us are more isolated than ever, stuck in the confines of our comfort zones, surrounded almost entirely by those who look like us, think like us, pray like us, vote like us.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we expand our circle, the whole world expands with us. Preemptive Love has been pursuing peace on the front lines of conflict for over a decade. We know what it takes to heal all that’s tearing us apart. And it takes all of us, sitting down with each other, with those of every background, identity, ethnicity, religion…with those we fear, with those we just don’t understand.
Not to ignore differences or pretend they don’t exist, but to love anyway. That may seem like a small step, it may seem risky to you. But if thousands of us, millions of us, took one small step after another, if we gathered month after month, we might just prove another future is possible.
Erin: During the COVID-19 pandemic, our gatherings are still meeting. They’re just meeting digitally for now. In fact, we’re providing video-chat platforms and agendas to walk alongside groups as you gather, providing free online workshops to guide you and online rallies to cheer you on, even when we can’t yet meet face-to-face. And for the younger among us, we’re hosting special events especially for students and young adults and cultivating community right alongside you as you pursue peace from home.
Erin: For conversation starters and more about how you can get involved, simply text “love anyway pod” to 72000, or visit our show notes at preemptivelove.org/podcast.
And now, for the Love Anyway send-off, the same words recited and held dear to close gathering meetings all across the country: May our relationships move us to action in the places where we live and begin to heal all that’s tearing us apart. Let’s go Love Anyway.
End credits: Love Anyway is a podcast by Preemptive Love. It’s written and produced by Erin Wilson, Kayla Craig, and Ben Irwin. Skip Matheny is our digital production director. Sean Gabrielson is our audio editor. Jeremy Courtney, Jessica Courtney, and JR Pershall are executive producers. Special thanks to Vjolca Capri, Toni Collier, and Saadia Querishi. Our theme music is by Roman Candle.