In the aftermath of the tragic shooting and loss of 50 lives (the youngest victim being just three years old) at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I have revised and brought up to date this post from Lent 2017.
Four Fridays, I observed midday prayers with my Muslim brothers and sisters.
Late January 2017, EEC reached out to MAS and they reached back. That is, my parish Emmanuel Episcopal Church (post the initial infamous travel ban) reached out in friendship to the Muslim American Society Community Center.
I called their office and left a message:
“We are with you. May we come to Friday prayers? We want to stand with you and support you as a mutual sign of our faith in God.”
Merehan Elhady (Mimi), the Outreach Director, called me right back. Little did I know, their mosque and school had been threatened with violence, with arson, and heinously, even threatened with the kidnapping of their children. That first Friday we shared prayers, the Fairfax County Chief of Police also came to speak to the Muslim community about safety and security.
At the end of the talk, I turned to our hosts. “We are with you,” was all that I could manage to say.
“You are courageous to come,” they told us.
“Heavens no! All we did was show up. You are a blessing to us and we will be back.”
Half a dozen of us, each week, observed prayers at MAS. And our Muslim brothers and sisters became like friends: Thoraia, Mimi, and Aseel. Now on a first name basis, each Friday, we would greet one another with hugs.
I’d cover my hair haphazardly with a scarf. I’d leave my shoes in the cubbies outside the worship space. I’d take a seat on the floor. The first two weeks, I sat behind the women. The next two weeks, we sat side by side.
Like we Episcopalians in the pews, together we’d listen to the preacher share a message of love and compassion. And a bit like Episcopal aerobics, we would also bow, kneel, fold our hands over our hearts in prayer, and three times touch our foreheads to the floor.
The chanted Arabic was haunting and beautiful. Though I did not understand a word, the prayers resonated with my soul and their meaning hewed closely to our own.
Muslims prepare for prayer with the cleansing of hands and feet and face, as they turn their thoughts to God. Just as in the BCP we pray:
“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
At the mosque, at midday prayers, the worshippers raise their hands and proclaim the greatness of the Lord: “Allahu Akbar.”
And at church, for five Sundays in Lent, we begin with the summary of the law:
“Jesus said, ‘The first commandment is this: Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31
And this heart of the Gospel echoes in the heart of the Qur’an:
“Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Beneficent, the Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone do we worship and from you alone do we seek aid. Show us the Straight Way, the way upon those you have bestowed your grace not of those who have earned your wrath and gone astray.” Qur’an 1: 2-6
This kind of faith strengthens my faith. These prayers redouble mine. Like Najashi, a Christian king of Ethiopia, proclaimed: the difference between their faith and mine is as thin as a line in the sand.
No, I am not converting to Islam. Jesus is the Eternal Word and the Human Face of God for me — and always will be.
But for those forty days in Lent of 2017, I endeavored to be a Muslim – of the Christian kind.
Five times a day, I would try to pray my Anglican rosary with my Roman Catholic prayers. Kneeling. Standing. Sitting. Walking. Daybreak. Midday. Afternoon. Sunset. Night.
Through Muslim eyes, I tried to draw closer to Jesus. Isa, he is called in the Qur’an. Named and proclaimed as: Messiah. Messenger. Prophet. Parable. Word. Witness. Sign. Spirit. Servant. All that is missing is ‘Lord’.
A bibliophile, I also read a bunch of books, of course.
Holy books: the Gospels, the Surah.
A history book of faith: “Islam: a Short Introduction” by Karen Armstrong.
And the story of a Sufi Muslim writer and novelist, Mazhar Mallouhi: “A Pilgrim of Christ on the Muslim Road” by P.G. Chandler.
And in January of 2018, many here at Emmanuel, will remember that our friends from the mosque joined us. They joined us in the pews and Merehan, expecting her fourth little boy, shared MAS’s gratitude for the support shown by their Christian friends. The Parish Hall that morning bustled with folks of all ages at the “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor” open house.
As time has passed our visits have lapsed. MAS undertook a major renovation of their worship, school and meeting space. Staff have turned over and by my neglect, we have lost touch. And I am very sorry for that.
And now in the tragic aftermath of the hateful and violent events in New Zealand, it is more than time for us to rejoin in friendship.
It is time again, isn’t it, just to show up. To stand behind and beside our Muslim neighbors to let them know that they are not alone.
To observe Friday prayers 1:15 PM at MAS again.
To serve the refugees in our community together again.
To renew our conversation to learn from one another as people of faith.
Being in the love your neighbor business, I will do my best to make this happen. And I encourage any and all who would like to join me on this path.
Because the difference between us and them is as thin as a line in the sand.