I grabbed a purple scarf as an afterthought. I had already slipped on a black dress over my jeans and a sweater to cover my arms. When I noticed every woman in the parking lot had their heads fully covered, I wished I had taken the time to figure out how to tuck my curls beneath the billowing silk around my neck.
“This is my first time here? Can we go in together?” I asked the young woman with a black scarf who was just stepping out of her car.
“It’s my first time too, I usually have class at this time, but I didn’t have class today and, you know, I wanted to come today.”
“Yeah, same. I’m a Christian, but I just felt like I needed to come and prayer here. My name is Josina,” I tell her.
“Mine is Aziza,” she smiles and thanks me for coming. Even though it is not her mosque, she welcomes me.
A police car is parked outside. I don’t know if that is a general precaution to protect this small religious minority in the Bible Belt or whether the car was stationed there because of what had just happened in New Zealand the Friday before. I couldn’t wrap my mind around a person shooting so many people including a three-year-old boy and a man whose first and last words to the stranger were, “Welcome Brother.”
My teenage son told me he watched a link to the livestream video that a gaming friend had sent him. In June of 2015, 9 people killed during Bible study seemed unthinkable. In the ensuing years mass murders in Western spaces that were once thought safe—concerts, schools, night clubs, houses of worship—had risen to the point that fifty people was not even the largest number of lives lost in one common place. My eldest child was twelve for Charleston and he cried when I told him the news. At nearly sixteen he had watched more graphic footage than I wanted to imagine. “I didn’t watch the whole thing mom,” he tried to reassure me.
“It’s not a game!” I scold.
“Geez, mom! I know, its sick.”
I felt an urgency to pray at the local Islamic Center. I called and left an awkward voice message, “Hi, I just wanted to know if I can come to your Friday service. I’m a Christian, but I really want to pray with your community if that’s OK, and let you know I’m glad you are my neighbors. But if it’s only for Muslims, I understand, I don’t want to intrude, so just let me know.” Later I got a voicemail from a young man, apologizing for missing my call, assuring me that I was welcome, thanking me for my solidarity. He said I could call back if I had any questions, but I didn’t bother to call about the head scarf.
I had gone to an open house there a few years ago. My daughters put bangles on their wrists. An Egyptian woman helped us put scarves on our heads. We took pictures and smiled. I sat beside an old woman who came to the US because her daughter had come here to study and she stayed. She took my hand and, responding to the small cross around my neck, said, “I love your Jesus. Islam, we love Jesus. We love everybody.”
My son took home a free Q’uran and lots of pamphlets, the girls kept the bangles, I posted pictures on social media. Our family’s spiritual home is in Jesus, but I want my children to experience the gift of being welcome guests in other spiritual homes. In college I helped start an interfaith community house. I’ve prayed with Muslim, B’ahai, Jewish and Buddhist friends. But I had never prayed at a mosque.
I texted my mother-in-law to ask if she could pick up the girls from school so that I could run some errands. I stopped short of telling her my full intention. It just wasn’t a conversation I was ready to have.
As Aziza and I started walking together I asked her if she thought my head should be covered. “Yes, I think so.” She said.
“Can you help me?” I asked, feeling like I’d showed up to class in my underwear. I love my hair, but in that moment, it felt all wrong; I wanted it hidden away. We dug in our purses to look for hair bands and found none. “It’s OK,” she assured me as she took the scarf and wrapped it over my head. Tucking it behind my neck, she pulled it under my chin. “There, that’ll do.”
I walked into the main entrance and started taking off my shoes. Aziza hesitated and greeted a man, “Salaam Alaikum, brother, is there a different entrance for the women?” He pointed to a door around the side of building, near the playground. “This looks better,” she said, as we placed our shoes among cubbies full of heels, flats, sandals and small children’s shoes.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the door window. With the scarf on, my skin looked browner, my eyes darker. I blended in with the women in the group. My breathing eased as I sat among women representing many countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and a handful of other African American women like myself. I also felt like an oddball and a bit of an impostor. I may have looked the part but my hair kept peeking out from my hastily wrapped scarf. My tongue didn’t know the prayers. I wondered if my jeans were too tight, my dress too short. I sat on the floor in the back of the room and reminded myself that we were here to pray.
The room was small, with a two-way glass in the front. We could see the Imam and the backs of the male worshipers, but they could not see us. Some elderly women sat in folding chairs but most of us sat on the carpeted floor. I noticed that as Aziza and the other women trickled in, they would first bow three times.
I wondered what that would that be like to enter a new church, anywhere in the world, and know that the very first thing to do would be to kneel to the ground and press your forehead to the floor. Rather than look around anxiously at the disapproving stares of folks who came “on time” one could arrive and with their full body announce, unapologetically, “Here I am to worship.”
The unfamiliar words of the adhan felt like wind. The meaning of the Arabic words vibrated through me. God is Great! I opened my hands in prayer, I bear witness that there is no god except the One God. I pressed my head into the carpet and whispered, “Thank you Jesus, Thank you Jesus. Lord have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy."
Hurry to the prayer. Hurry to salvation. God is Great! There is no god except the One God.
My face was wet with tears as I sat up to listen to the Imam preach about the rules of Islam, about martyrs who chose torture and death over renouncing their faith. It sounded like what any Christian would do in the face of persecution. It did not make me want to convert to Islam, but it deepened my respect for their faithfulness and pricked my conscious to consider the costs of choosing faith over fear. My own enslaved ancestors came from Mali and may have been Muslim. Perhaps it felt familiar because they had whispered this call to their children.
Finally, he came to the events in New Zealand. He urged people to renounce fear, to renounce hate, to stand firm. He celebrated that all of New Zealand heard the call to prayer that Friday. I responded to it, too.
He announced a special time of prayer the next day to lament with the local community. It made me wonder, when tragedy strikes, do we, as Christians, open our doors and welcome people that look like our persecutors and say, “Welcome brother. Welcome sister. Hurry to pray with us”?
He said there would be a police presence all day including for the classes. A little boy turned to his mom and said, “The police will be at our class? Why?” I could not hear her whispered response.
It was clear they didn’t need me or my prayers that day. But I needed to be there, kneeling and weeping in that sighing space between words. I left having only spoken with Aziza. She thanked me again for coming as we walked to our cars, and I thanked her in return. I kept the scarf on my head as I pulled out of the parking lot, then I let it slip as I approached the intersection.
Josina Guess is a writer who was shaped by east coast cities and is now rooted in the rural south. She's written for The Christian Century, Sojourners, and is a contributor to Good Letters for Image Journal and Bearings Online. She's working on a book about race, history and violence and her family's reverse migration. Follow her work at josinaskitchentable.blogspot.com
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