We will steal your children

mosque-prayer

 

I went to a mosque on Friday to pray with Muslims.

I never thought I’d write such a sentence. Or thought there would be the need to do such a thing.

I arrived at the Muslim American Society at roughly 12:45 p.m. for the 1:15 prayers. I always arrive early, especially when I’m not exactly sure where I’m going. Police were directing traffic in and out of the mosque parking lot, and it reminded me of the church where I grew up, St Bernadette’s Roman Catholic Church. Daily, uniformed police officers helped parishioners and school families come safely in and out of the parking lot onto Old Keene Mill Road, a heavily traveled road in Springfield.

As I was getting out of my pickup truck, I spotted two parishioners from my parish, Emmanuel Episcopal Church. As I greeted them with a hug I heard my name called from behind me, and smiled as two parishioners from my former parish, Good Shepherd Catholic Church, arrived. We embraced as well. Not at all surprised by their presence and their desire to stand in solidarity with people we don’t know, I was grateful to see them. Our seminarian, Rick, and another seminarian friend of his, also met us in the parking lot. Before we walked too far, several others from Emmanuel arrived. Our little group made our way to the building unsure exactly where to go. Several people who looked like they had the “home court advantage” pointed us to a door.

Once inside, a burka-dressed women greeted us, as well as other women whose heads were covered, but whose faces we could see. I instinctually stuck out my hand to introduce myself, and then froze, not knowing if Muslim women can touch men. They smiled warmly telling me it was okay to shake their hands. Whew! The women led us to a classroom where to my surprise we were invited to join a meeting already in progress, led by the Fairfax County Chief of Police. The attendees included many people from the mosque, as well as outside community members (such as us). The Police Chief was there to help quell fears following a rash of hate mail and death threats. The Chief and his accompanying officer did an outstanding job addressing the fears of the attendees and fielding their many good questions. A relationship began in our midst. That was humbling to witness. Chief Roessler and the imam worked well together conducting the meeting. Together they masterfully addressed concerns and even laughed as the imam said, “If I had known we were going to have so many guests I would have made some hummus.” We all laughed enjoying his good humor in what was obviously a very stress-filled time for his community.

Afterwards one of my parishioners shared, 

I was very moved by our time at the Muslim American Society. I doubt that I have ever felt so welcomed in my life. It truly saddened me, though, when one of the women (whispering) mentioned that they were meeting with the police chief because of a growing number of threatening letters, including “we will steal your children” and “we will set your school on fire.” She said that it has been kept quiet because they don’t want to scare the children or seem any more difficult for their neighbors to deal with.

Of all of the crazy scary phone calls I have fielded in my nearly 27 years as a priest, I can assure you, “We will steal your children” and “We will set your school on fire” are not two of them. No wonder the police chief was present. Dear God.

When the meeting was over we were invited to join the 1:15 p.m. prayers. Men went to one large room, and women to another. Before entering the room we took off our shoes and then found a place in the room as the service was about to begin. Dressed in my red cow-plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans I was the only man dressed in color. Every other man was dressed in dark colors, and some wore long black or gray robes. The room was every bit of 100 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The imam stood in the front center. Two television screens showed the imam to those who were further out from center. In the women’s room they could view the imam by television screen as well. I sat slightly left of center in the men’s room. (Yep, not just politically speaking, but even at the mosque, I sat slightly left of center! Ha!) An elderly man who sat next to me politely helped me know when to stand, sit and kneel at all the right times. Just as if a person had wandered into a Roman Catholic Mass or Episcopalian Service and didn’t know when to kneel or stand. I felt perfectly welcomed, cared for and seen. The imam spoke perfect English. He was young and loud, energized and filled with passion. He shared that he is an American. Married. Has children. He is afraid. He shared how times such as we live in today are like the rumble strips we have along our highways, so that when we are too far off the side of the road we hit the cement rumble strips and the strips shake our car warning us to stay awake. The imam shared how he feels shaken out of his ordinary day-to-day living into action; and challenged his brothers and sisters to action as well. To get in touch with our state and national representatives when we feel we are unfairly profiled or marginalized. To continue to love and care for one another in our communities.

The Gospel reading for this past Sunday is taken from Matthew. It’s the salt and light passage. Loosely translated from The Message, 

Jesus, speaking to his followers says,

In case you have forgotten, let me remind you who you are here. You are supposed to be like salt, deliciously seasoning the earth and all who live here with the God-flavors of the world. If you lose your saltiness, how then will people know you or the God Who sent you? You’ve got an important job to do, now go and do it!

Here’s another way to put it: you are here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this message, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand so all can see your light. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light-stand – SHINE! Keep your hearts open. Be generous with your lives. Open up to others and you’ll prompt others to open up to God, this generous Father we have in heaven. Now go. Shine.

SaltLight-Image1

 

I don’t mean to overstate or underestimate what we did at the mosque; but as one young Muslim women put it, “Look at this room filled with so many people. We’ve never seen so many people who have come to support us. Thank you, thank you, thank you for befriending us. We’ve been so afraid. Your being here gives us hope.” Then she took out her cell phone and asked if someone would take a picture of the occasion. Rick, our 6 foot 7+ seminarian gladly offered to take the picture. The Muslim woman wanted to show everyone the day when perfect strangers came, stood side by side with them in their midst, on their turf, in their mosque, and offered support, love and friendship. That sounds like salt to me. Sounds like light to me.

The whole event, start to finish, took an hour. The prayers took maybe 35 minutes. The impact of those precious few minutes?  Big. Perhaps bigger than we’ll ever know.

salt_and_light_by_howsweethesound Thank you to those who joined us. I know that was short notice. Thank you for carving precious minutes out of your day to be there.

To those who could not join us, please consider arranging a visit to a mosque near you. Or just stop by! We were told several times that an appointment does not need to be made. Just like at a Catholic Mass or Episcopal Service – we’re welcome to any of the five prayer times Muslims practice every day. Something tells me the Christ in them will gladly welcome the Christ in you.

Peace, light, salt and love to you all,

Chuck

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19 Comments

  • Pat says:

    Thank you, Chuck, for this piece about your visit to the Muslim prayer service. I pray that we have many more opportunities to support our Muslim neighbors.

    Peace

  • Heather says:

    Beautiful Chuck! Thanks for sharing.

  • Mike McMahon says:

    Chuck, I’m honored to know such a good man as you! Your love, respect and tolerance for others is truly the way that Christ calls us to live our lives. Thank you!
    Your Friend,

    Mike

  • Mariela says:

    What a great experience! And a lesson we can all learn from! Thanks so much for sharing this! Peace!

  • Ann Darden says:

    Such a wonderful, loving, moving story. I’ve had similar experiences with people from the Route One mosque both at one of their services and over several years teaching in an ESL class. To quote a friend–aren’t we all “Of one heart on the way to God.”

  • Chuck says:

    I was honored to read this comment on the Emmanuel Episcopal Facebook page: “To Our Brothers, and Sisters from the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Alexandria your support in these troubling times is refreshing, and uplifting. As you saw from our community, you gave us a sense of reassurance, and hope that there is still good in the world. We Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, and welcome you at any time to our community center. We have and always had an open door policy to anyone and everyone. Hospitality to the stranger is definitely a strong value in our tradition. Our members were thrilled to see you, and some were emotionally touched by the sentiment, because yes, people are afraid. What you have done is humanize the muslim narrative in your blog, you showed that we are just like everyone else, we are parents, we worship, go to school, work, and strive to lead upright Godly lives. You have changed the narrative from “those people”, to hey we are going to support our neighbors come join! :) This was a brave and act of courage, to go out of your comfort zones, and to Love Thy Neighbor. It is only when we come out of our comfort zones will we truly see the beauty in each other. With Gratitude Your neighbors and friends – The Muslim American Society”

  • Marianne says:

    I just love you. And love this.

  • Paula Polglase says:

    I love that you all did this. What an amazing way to bear witness and be the salt and light of Christ. This is how peace will spread.

  • Mary Jane says:

    After reading your last blog about the prayer service at the mosque I felt like it was what I needed to hear. I have prayed for religious tolerance but this gave me an opportunity to act out what we, as Christians, say we believe. I won’t say that I wasn’t a bit unsure of entering into a religious tradition that I knew very little about. What I found was warmth and welcoming. In speaking to an Iman, I was surprised that something I said to him reminded him of a quote of Pope John Paul. We have fertile ground to build a understanding relationship. Let us make this just the beginning.

  • Bill Zaccagnino says:

    It is easy to vilify the unknown. The answer to many problems is knowing the other person.

  • nancy kuhn says:

    I am still shaken (or perhaps stirred) by our experience last Friday. It has certainly given me a lot to think about and pray for.

  • Barbara Cockrell says:

    A beautiful experience for all involved. The last sentence brought me to tears. Having spent time and worked in Muslim communities in Bosnia and Kosovo, among other countries, I have often been welcomed into mosques, families and communities where I experienced exactly that feeling.

  • Susan Koscis says:

    Will the folks from the Mosque visit Emanuel next? Seems to me that connections and relationships are what is needed — beyond a single visit — as meaningful as the visit was.

  • Barbara Cotter says:

    Thanks Chuck for this report that clearly shows how much we are needed to befriend and support our Muslim Friends. ICNA, our Mosque on Route One is a big part of Ventures In Community (VIC) now. They have partnered some with the Unitarian Church. I am praying that the President’s Press Secretary soon learns that Refugees and Immigrants are not Aliens but undocumented and documented immigrants and Refugees. It’s a simple change in meaning and attitude.

  • Kathy McCleary says:

    My cup runneth over…

  • Jim Carney says:

    Thanks for this report. We do need to be reminded of our common humanity and our obligations as Christians to extend the hand of friendship and love to all strangers. It was particularly interesting to me to note that the horrific comments about stealing children came from the non-Muslim community whereas in the past I have read similar charges against radical Islamists’ claims. There is plenty of evil on both sides but Christ’s love can fill and expand the middle enough to either snuff those elements out or make them truly fringe ravings from the hard-core evil. A policy of branding another religion entirely as a threat is not only terrible, counterproductive policy but it absolutely contradicts Christ’s instructions to us.

  • Sylvia Mulherin says:

    Were the women in your group allowed to go in the front door?

    • Chuck says:

      Yes, absolutely, we were all allowed in the front door, though it was a challenge to figure out exactly where to go and enter! Lol. Thank God we looked like “deer in headlights!”

      And I agree with what my parishioner shared, “I don’t know that I have ever felt more welcome.” True. We were treated beautifully.

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