OCTOBER 4, 2018, MARBLEHEAD – “He had rained upon them manna to eat, and given them grain of heaven,” says Psalm 78, describing the miraculous food that God provided the Israelites during their exodus from slavery.
The word “manna” appears in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran, and its usage in all three holy books underscores the importance each of the faiths place on feeding the hungry. It is therefore apt that a Jewish rabbi, a Christian pastor, and a Muslim spiritual leader have teamed up to create the Manna Project to address hunger on the North Shore.
The Manna Project began in 2017 when two Marblehead spiritual leaders, Rabbi David Cohen-Hernandez of Temple Sinai and Pastor Jim Bixby of Clifton Lutheran Church, began discussing how their congregations could collaborate to help the wider community.
“One day the idea came of doing a project, and one thing led to the other,” said Cohen-Henriquez, who had become friends with Bixby through the interfaith Marblehead Ministerial Association. “[We always knew] the main purpose was to feed people, but with our religious awareness. It is an imperative commandment in both our traditions to feed the poor – we can’t talk about [God] if people are hungry.”
Initially, Bixby didn’t think he wanted the joint project to focus specifically on hunger. However, upon talking to members of the community, he learned it is a far more pervasive problem than most people realize.
“I will be the first person to admit that hunger seemed to me to be yesterday’s problem,” said Pastor Bixby. “The more time I spent with [someone] anecdotally, the more I realized hunger’s a daily part of life for this congregant. Then I got more into the statistics of what does this look like? Is this a common story? The answer is yeah … this is relevant.”
According to Bixby, one in 10 people on the North Shore experience what is known as hunger insecurity, which means they are unsure where their next meal is coming from.
After they decided they wanted to launch an anti-hunger initiative together roughly a year ago, Cohen-Henriquez and Bixby first launched a Sukkot Harvest-fest to raise money. Then they met with local businesses and rotary clubs, who supplied 31 donations such as gift baskets and free cruises that they raffled off every day in January in order to raise money.
In March at Temple Sinai, volunteers packed a total of 14,000 meals to distribute to food banks around the North Shore. “The subtitle of the Manna Project is ‘Being God’s hands,’” said Cohen-Henriquez. “God sends the food, but [we] have to move it, distribute it – it doesn’t fall from the sky anymore.”
After the packing was finished, Cohen-Henriquez and Bixby engaged the congregation in an interfaith worship ceremony, and everyone sat down to eat. At this year’s packing event, Cohen-Henriquez and Bixby hope to double the amount of food distributed. They also are embarking on a listening tour to better ascertain the community’s needs.
“Our focus is evolving,” said Bixby. “As we first got together, the need appeared so huge that we just had to act – we had to get some food out into the community right now. But God demands of us not just charity, but justice. That’s one of the things we’re thinking about for this next year. We will continue to be charitable and generous – we also want to change the system that leaves people in perpetual cycles of hunger and poverty and destitution, and break those.”
With a new person on the core team, that goal may be more attainable. Fawaz Abusharkh, the spiritual leader of the Lynn-based Islamic Society of the North Shore, whom Cohen-Henriquez met at an interfaith vigil after the Parkland shooting in February, joined the Manna Project over the summer.
For Abusharkh, who is Palestinian, working with the Manna Project has helped reinforce his view that the three religions – and all people in general – share an incredible amount in common.
“We are all the same, and we all want the same thing,” he said. “In all our religions – Christian, Jewish, and Muslims – we are asked to feed the hungry and help the weak. It’s like an enlightening point when you see that despite the difference in how people practice, the religions strictly and clearly say the same thing when it comes to all these issues.”
Bixby sees God’s hand in the interfaith collaboration. “The three of us started talking, and sharing a little bit, and quite frankly, it just seemed to me that in all three of our ways of explicating our faiths that God was calling us into something – the coincidences couldn’t be explained,” he said. “We keep on ending up in the same room together, talking about the same things, talking about the same issues in our community – maybe God says that we should do something together for this.”
The Manna Project is not their only collaboration. Last year, Cohen-Henriquez and Bixby participated in a pulpit exchange that allowed each to give a sermon at the other’s house of worship. This year, Abusharkh also will participate in the exchange, and all three faith leaders will speak at the Clifton Lutheran Church (Oct. 7 at 10 a.m.), Temple Sinai (Oct. 26 at 6 p.m.), and the Islamic Society of the North Shore (Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m.).
“Let’s find ways to love and work together for the benefit of community,” said Abusharkh. “Because at the end, it is all of our community. [Our collaboration] shows us that yes, we can be together.”