From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Interwoven: Reflection on Prayer in a Mosque

King Fahad mosque stands defiantly on a particularly nonchalant stretch of Washington Blvd in Culver City, CA. Across the street is a gun store; next door is a run-down apartment complex. When we arrived, the pre-Friday-prayer buzz had barely begun. Rich and poor men and women emerged from alleys and Lexuses to greet each other in front of the arched entrance. I reluctantly began to tuck my hair into the orange scarf I had brought. Our obvious non-Muslimness was attracting stares and smiles. Soon, a well-dressed Arab with perfect black hair and what I think was a Pakistani accent stopped in front of our group and asked, with a face and tone conveying intrigue and amusement, "Are you just looking?"
"No," I said, "We're here for prayer."
"Oh!" He murmured something to the older gentleman following them, and beckoned up a creamy staircase. "Would you care to come with me? I will speak to the director, and he will show you around."
We waited outside for a few minutes, arms folded and scarves falling off, and I allowed myself to marvel at the Arabic script dotting the minarettes. In no other language that I have thus far encountered do the words literally become art. And the greatest word, to this effect? Allah--اللة--God. It is not a word; it is a presence.
A small man with huge brown eyes, thick spectacles which magnified them, an orange face covered in freckles and reddish brown hair plodded over to us. "We were supposed to meet today; weren't we? You are from Loyola Marymount?" I couldn't help but giggle as I found out who he was. This was Usman Madha, the Burmese Director of Administration and P.R. at King Fahad. A redhead Muslim. When I asked Rabbi Chaim and Dr. Amir Hussain whether we would stick out as a student group, the Rabbi chortled, "Well, Heather, you won't meet any other redheads!" Wanna bet?
Usman regretted that he had forgotten to meet us at 12:30, because there wasn't ample time to show us the mosque and the congregation (is it possible to use that word in a non-Christian context?) was already filtering in to the main prayer hall.
The next bit Usman said with some obvious discomfort. He even bowed his head slightly. "Okay, the women will have to cover their hair (which we had already done) and follow my sister upstairs to the next level. You (he said to Steven) can come with me. But my sister will take good care of the rest of you!" As the men made their way to the main floor, I realized he probably met with much hostility from non-Muslim women who refused to accept that they cannot pray in the same place men do. I disagree with biological difference signifying spiritual favoritism, but I mostly felt sorry for him, and the obvious attacking of tradition that has led him to such cautious behavior.
We removed our shoes in a bright marble walkway before making our way up a carpeted stair. I laughed again as Usman's sister met us--another Burmese redhead. We passed into what I would call an observation room. Long and carpeted with one wall consisting of windows, it stands above the main prayer floor, facing the front of the mosque, so that the women pray above and separated from the men. It initially gave me the impression that women are observers, rather than participants, in prayer. There were even TV screens so the women sitting at the back could watch the sermon.
Through the windows at the front of the room I saw the mens' floor and nooks for the reciter and the imam. Men were already lining up shoulder-to-shoulder sitting Indian-style. Some had begun their individual prayer cycles, alternating between sitting and reading the Qur'an to touching their foreheads to the floor in front of them.
All Muslims don't look like Bin Laden, people. These men were African, South Asian, Persian, and European (there was another redhead! 3 count!), and they sat so close to each other, and were so focused, that they kind of blended together into one chain of spirit that entranced me.
The women poured in to our floor. All of them looked genuinely surprised and happy to see us. They were so beautiful. I remember one, and Indian woman named Shanti, who came to us and gave us her email in case we had any questions on Islam or the mosque. Her sari and veil were Easter colors, I noticed--bright yellow, green, lavender, blue, and layered and flowing. She had a round brown face and similar eyes and I couldn't imagine she'd ever been mad at anyone.
She explained that when praying, all Muslims face the Ka'ba in Mecca, the place where Abraham built the first prayer house (a black stone box) to the one true God. She explained that they cover their hair with veils and that they never pray to Muhammad, only to Allah, the same God that "you" Christians worship. She explained that they pray five times a day and that Friday communal prayer is required within her community. The interesting thing is that I knew this already, from being in Lebanon, conversing with Muslims, and taking Dr. Hussain's Muslim/Jewish theology class (for which visiting a mosque is a requirement...hence this post). It interests me that she assumed my ignorance. After all, what are most Muslims met by? Hostility, misunderstanding, prejudice.
The reciter (I don't know what they call the man who sings the call to prayer which begins the communal service) made his way to the northwestern wall (closest to Mecca) and at his voice, all the faithful fell into line. My LMU friends and I took our place at the back wall to observe. Shanti in her Easter colors touched shoulders with an Indonesian woman in a long black hijab with flowers, who was right next to a high school student in a tight, girly white dress with her hair covered in a mod red scarf. Their differences struck me, but again, the colors fell together in a long line of prayer. I remember sitting speechless with my mouth slightly open as the song started and they began their bowing.
The imam's sermon was perfect. He said everything a priest would say and more. We must embrace everyone, regardless of religion, race, nationality. We must never cease to smile at our sisters and brothers, conveying the strength of Allah within us to the world. As he spoke, a four-year-old named Amina, holding a kid's copy of the Qur'an, curled up in my laugh. I had never met her; that didn't matter. Then he said, "I'd like to welcome the group of students from Loyola Marymount University. Ahsalam Alaykum (peace be upon you and your angels). You are always welcome in our community as we all strive for peace and understanding." Everyone turned to look at us, and every face was wide-eyed and wonderful.
As we left the womens' floor and headed back to the entrance, we received too many handshakes and thank-yous to count, and even a treat called a riyAH (or something), a khubz (bread) full of oil and sugar and wheat. Usman gave us a small tour of the mens' floor when everyone had left, and bid us return someday.
I think I will. And bring with me more people who are ready to experience the beauty of Islam.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

It's Been Long Enough!

I don't have anything particularly insightful to say (GASP). I just noticed that the activities my senior year at LMU (GASP) have been rightfully commanding the majority of my time, and so I hadn't updated this blog in a month. So here goes.
Jess Vega and I are going to a discernment weekend for possible international Jesuit Volunteers. That is, I'm one step closer to spending two years with the poor and marginalized in a developing country. I've also begun following the blogs of current JVIs: Beth in Tanzania, who graduated from LMU, and Sean in Nicaragua, a Portland native to whom my Aunt J connected me. Reading their blogs is definitely like taking a step into the future.
I have been to Juvenile Hall three times now, and am still feeling called to go back. There may be something to this (like there was something to Portland).
Well--ready for an anti-climax?--that's all for now! Thanks for staying updated!