How the Atlas Foundation—and a good meal—bridges gaps among cultures

Nothing bonds Red Stick residents like sharing a meal. It’s part of the fabric of our culture. We meet new people, catch up with old friends, celebrate our achievements and mourn our losses, all while sitting around the dinner table. We could probably solve the world’s problems with empty plates and full stomachs. In fact, the Atlas Foundation is counting on it.

The local organization is dedicated to promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue across the city—doing that largely by gathering community members for dinner. By hosting a meal with people of different faiths, the Atlas Foundation believes it can “create a platform for people to come together and talk about issues without fighting,” says Fevzi Sarac, a member of the foundation’s board of directors.

The organization was founded in New Orleans in 2002 in the wake of 9/11 to help depolarize Louisiana’s faith communities. And it maintained the same message as it soon expanded into the Capital City, eventually settling into a headquarters on Stumberg Lane in 2008. Today, the foundation organizes regular cooking classes, coffee nights, traditional multi-faith dinners, international festivals and spiritual reading clubs and get-togethers for people of all religious backgrounds.

A member pours Turkish coffee during a henna demonstration event.

On left: Participants learn how to make Turkish cuisine during a cooking class.

On right: An Atlas Foundation member teaches a class on “ebru,” a Turkish water marbling craft that produces an intricate pattern on paper.

One of its biggest activities is celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan with other religious communities in Baton Rouge. The foundation invites churches and religious centers around the city to its headquarters to break the traditional fast at sundown. It’s a chance for Christians to “stand tall next to their Muslim friends,” Sarac says. And when Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter rolls around, the foundation also invites all faiths to celebrate.

The organization has grown significantly over the past 17 years. While it started with a focus on interfaith dialogue, it now embraces cultural immersion as one of its hallmarks, adding activities like international cooking classes and craft workshops. Each year, the foundation invites members of different nationalities to show off their cuisine and culture during the classes. That’s led to evenings of Colombian, Mexican, Pakistani, Turkish, Kenyan, Iranian and Egyptian cuisine spread across tables for attendees to enjoy.

But although the foundation focuses on faith and cultural relations, it hasn’t yet found a way to create a space for direct conversations about race in Baton Rouge. Sarac says while race remains a polarizing issue in the city, he hopes the foundation can host programming that helps people of different races come together in the future.

While the Atlas Foundation is a local organization, its mission is based on the Turkish “hizmet” movement, which seeks to establish a global community based on mutual respect and service.

On left: A spread of dishes during an international cooking class.

On right: Participants wait to try dishes during an Iranian cooking class.

“To be honest, when I came down to the South, I had some worries, especially as a Turkish person who has an accent,” Sarac says.

But Sarac and his family, who are Muslim, found the Baton Rouge community to be more warm and welcoming than he expected. He attributes that in part to the work of the Atlas Foundation. The foundation may not be a loud group of people, he says, but the members’ actions speak volumes in the community.

It’s the open, accepting dialogue that allowed a Christian man to walk up and embrace Sarac in the middle of a public library after recognizing him from one of Atlas Foundation’s events.

“I love to hug people without any reason,” Sarac says. “It is good to hug each other and for another person to see a hug between a Muslim and a Christian.”

And hopefully, Sarac says, onlookers will be encouraged to embrace someone from a different background, too.

About the organization

Find out more about the organization and its events on Facebook or at atlaslouisiana.org.

This article was originally published in the October 2019 issue of 225 Magazine.