Smoothing the scarf over my head, wrapping its ends around my shoulders, slipping off my shoes–these small acts alone shifted me away from the heat and fatigue of a Friday afternoon and into a sense of calm. Along with those I’d come with, I walked up the stairs, my feet as light as I could make them and my head bowed.
At the top of the stairs, as is custom in a Muslim prayer service, the men went one way and the women went another, even though we’d end up in the same large prayer room, all of us facing the same direction, many of the men, several yards ahead of the women in the room, already assuming postures of prayer, even as folks gathered.
There was a sense of sisterhood in that back-of-the-room space I found myself in. Women in varying degrees of traditional Muslim dress all sat on the floor, many of them leaning against one another as dear girlfriends often do, smart phones out as they softly chattered and small children playing at their feet. Their scarves were gorgeous, but nowhere near as beautiful as their olive skin and dark eyes and warm, welcoming smiles. “We are so glad you’re here,” one said to me, closing her hands over my own and speaking her gratitude quietly, but with deep fervor.
It was past time for Friday prayer and the room was filling quickly. And not just with the faithful who came every Friday. We were there–a handful of folks from the church I go to. Civic leaders were there. A general with the Kentucky National Guard. Pastors of multiple Christian congregations around town. The mayor was on his way. 48 hours earlier, the mosque had been the site of vicious and hateful vandalism and we had all come to say, “We’re with you.”
And then a small man, in full traditional garb stood up, took a microphone and began to call us all to prayer. He did so from the depths of his being, the sounds guttural and ancient, calling across the centuries, in spite of the acts of hate still visible on the walls of his sacred space. I placed my hands on the deep red and gold rug I sat on, and ducked my head. I did not want the tears falling to be obvious to anyone else. I could not understand a word he said–I know absolutely no Arabic–but it didn’t matter. I knew what he called was sacred. Holy. Begging for the presence of God to be made known.
I heard an echo of his call, and as discreetly as I could searched for the voice trying so hard to match the leader’s. It didn’t take me long–a small boy, no older than my sweet 3 year-old nephew, stood clinging to the ends of an elderly woman’s hijab, his eyes focused and his whole body involved in his efforts to chant the call on his own.
I sat as still as I could for the next half hour. Listened as a leader in the Islamic community spoke a gracious and inspired word about how we rise with kindness in the face of hate. I watched as teenagers slipped in late, giggling, and their mamas glared at them (we really are all so alike…). I kept my eye on the little boy, laughing inside as I watched him flip-flop between rolling around on the floor and trying his best at reverence. And I breathed deep as the Muslims all rose, shoulder to shoulder, and prayed together at the end, and then welcomed us in conversation and connection.
Soon after it was over I slipped back down the staircase to find my shoes and uncover my head–I had a little girl to pick up from school.
I knew that a community-wide clean up effort had been organized for after Friday prayers. I was not at all prepared to walk out of the mosque, into the glaring afternoon sun, and find hundreds of my fellow Louisvillians waiting. Paint rollers in hand, work clothes on, carrying water and ready to work. My jaw dropped, a lump rose in my throat, and I stood there, stunned with the absolute beauty in front of me. Every color of skin. Every demographic. Every sort of God’s child you could imagine stood there. Waiting to help. Waiting to take their turn to say, “We are so sorry this happened. And we’re here to help.”
I had to walk through the crowd to exit the property of the mosque to my car, and as I did so, more and more people filed in. NG soldiers and hired security folks were obvious, yes–and given the context I am grateful they were there, but mostly, I felt like Thomas Merton at 4th and Walnut, wondering if all these people knew how wonderful and beautiful they were, if they knew, that at that moment, they were shining like the sun into my broken heart and filling it with such light.
“This is hope,” I thought. This. Is. Hope. And my heart sang.
Earlier this week, I blogged about both the vandalism at the mosque and the arrest of Ahmed Mohammed. There were some folks who did not like what I had to say. On the one hand, this is good news–when bloggers get official haters/trolls/dissenting voices they get more attention in cyberspace, and that’s okay. But these particular criticisms of my words only served to fuel my anger and disgust at the presence of hate. I am not as grace-full as the Muslims I prayed with.
Let me be clear–in the time I spent at the River Road Mosque and Lousiville Islamic Center on Friday, no one was out to get me because I am white, or American or a Christian. No one labelled me an infidel or made me swear allegiance to another faith or another understanding of God. No one.
I was welcomed–wholeheartedly and with good intention and with the most gracious of words and smiles.
So you cannot tell me “they,” “the Muslims,” are at fault. Every religion, every way of life has its own zealots, its own extremists. My own faith tradition is no different in this regard. We cannot judge an entire people, an entire faith, by 9/11. Or by Hamas. Or by ISIS. Or, as I must confess from my own Christian denomination, Jim Jones.
There is no room in this world for hate. For intolerance of any kind. We were not created for such madness. We were created for love. For relationship. For the living of life together.
I do not know when we will finally learn this in such a way that it changes lives and communities for the better–but thanks to my own town having one of its finest moments this week (just after one of its worst moments), I am hopeful that one day we will.