I went to the mosque today near Covington Pike in North Memphis—home to a sea of car lots and inflatable characters and where the color orange is king. I don’t know what I was expecting the mosque to look like, but this was not it. I suppose I thought it would be ornate and tall, mysterious and smelling of cardamom. But when I arrived, it looked more like an oversized fellowship hall from my youth (complete with wood paneling and a kitchenette) than the mosques I’d seen on the Travel Channel.
I grimaced as I remembered that I have a history with this particular mosque. About a year ago, several of its congregants dissuaded a large group of Afghan friends of mine from attending a dinner my nonprofit organization was having in their honor. From a culture that celebrates hospitality, my friends had anxiously waited for the day of the “party,” as they called it.
When the day arrived and I met the charter bus to pick the families up, I was in for a surprise. Women and children were streaming hurriedly out of their apartments. One by one they walked past me, embracing me and saying, “We’re so sorry, Erin. We can’t go.” I approached the imam to find out what was really going on, but he and the others with him turned their backs toward me and would not speak with me. I was stunned. I realized my Afghan friends did not believe they had a choice to go where they wanted to go. It dawned on me that as a Christian, the leaders might view me as a questionable influence on my Afghan friends. I later learned that when the leaders saw the invitations to the dinner, they coordinated a plan to divert the families. To offend an imam would be a serious offense in Islam, so my friends deferred to them.
The countenance of my closest Afghan friend, Adiba, was dramatically altered that day. Gone were her American clothes, and in their place she wore traditional Afghan clothes and covered her head. This was rare behavior, usually reserved for Ramadan and Eid. She would not even make eye contact with me. I helplessly watched them load into cars and vans and leave their midtown apartment complex while my charter bus sat empty.
Now here I was at that very mosque, an invited guest. I pulled into the parking lot with anticipation mixed with nervousness. When Matt Morris, founder of the Memphis Afghan Friendship Summit, invited me to attend this reception to hear from officials of the newly formed Afghan government, I was happy to accept. All of my Afghan friends had to work that Sunday, so I decided to go solo. As I parked the car and headed toward what looked like the front door, I kept reminding myself, “I’m invited, I’m invited.”
The first things I noticed as I walked in were the shoes. Shoes were everywhere, except on people’s feet. I realized I had not dressed for the occasion. I was wearing boots and a just-below-the-knee skirt, which proved to be an awkward combination for this event. I precariously took off my boots and looked around for familiar faces. Seeing none, I mingled around and was offered coffee and doughnuts by a greeter. In this simple way, the mosque was not so different from my church. The thought unsettled me a bit. I read the printed notices on the bulletin boards, and again, it seemed very familiar. There was a prayer guide, a notice about a guest speaker and a reminder to give your zakat. Zakat is the Muslim equivalent of the tithe in Christianity, about 2.5 percent of a Muslim’s income.
My thoughts drifted for a moment to the five pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, giving, fasting and pilgrimage. They are not so different from Christian values. Just then, a little boy toddled past me. His father was not far behind, letting his son test out this walking thing but also ready to console him in case he wiped out. I smiled and felt at home for the first time in the mosque.
The meeting was starting, so I walked slowly toward the main meeting room. Somehow, I was the first woman to enter, but the man at the door quickly stopped me. “Sisters will be permitted to be in the meeting, but we must ask that their heads are covered, please,” he said. Of course. I didn’t have my head covered. What was I thinking? I didn’t know what to do. The only thing I could think of was my leather jacket, and the visual image that conjured up was less than appealing. I locked eyes with another twentysomething woman who motioned to me to follow her to a back room to find a stash of spare headscarves. Relieved, I took a brightly colored scarf and tried to remember how to tie it correctly and blend in.
Sitting on the floor at the back of the mosque, I noticed that there were few Muslim women in the room. Usually, the women would be in a separate room with a curtain drawn where they would listen to the prayer service. Instead of feeling separated from the men in the room by my headscarf, I actually felt more included as I honored the cultural preferences of these followers of Islam.
Again, the jarring cultural differences were met with a familiar component of my Christian experience, “opening with prayer.” Then I panicked. They would be praying to Allah. I realized that we were facing east as I looked up and saw a small window near the ceiling. Should I just pretend to pray? I decided that when in doubt, follow the lead of the more experienced. Mark Morris placed his hands, palms up, on his lap and bowed his head to pray. “Okay, I can do this,” I thought. I prayed a quick (and quiet) prayer of intercession, that Jesus would appear in visions and dreams to those seated around me and that each one would have a relationship with their Creator. It was amazing to think that this was the first time prayers had been offered up in this mosque to God Almighty, the Redeemer. The prayer settled me, and I sensed God’s presence in the place for the entire meeting.
Representatives of the Afghan Ministries of Education and Public Health shared about the plight of the Afghan people as post-Taliban reconstruction slowly takes place. They asked us to pray for the nation of Afghanistan to experience lasting peace and prosperity. They expressed their gratitude to the city of Memphis, which they told us was the only city in the world to extend a hand of friendship to them, through ongoing idea exchanges, as well as practical assistance, to meet the challenges of health and education reconstruction. Though many have offered to help, few follow through the way the people of Memphis have.
After the meeting, I returned my headscarf, zipped up my boots and exited the mosque. I called my friend Adiba on my cell phone and asked her to lunch. The friendships continue as my worldview and influence continues to expand.
[Erin Kealy is a writer who works with refugees and immigrants in Memphis, Tenn., where she is on staff at The Life Church of Memphis. She will be traveling to Sri Lanka and Botswana this summer.]
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