On Friday, February 3, I drove out to Sterling, VA, parking at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church about a mile away from a mosque where we were picked up by a van, which shunted us to the mosque. Streams of Muslims who poured in for the first service were met by a line of Christians and Jews welcoming them with smiles and hand held signs: “Love Trumps hate,” “You are welcome here,” “You are welcome in my home.” Deeply moving.
But I wanted to worship and did. My knees are still screaming. You sit, squat or kneel on a rug. Or all three at different times. Nobody’s alone: you don’t find a private spot as in most churches, you fill a hole. You’re up, down, rocking forward, forehead on the rug, and more. I hit the guy in back of me in the head twice with my feet. Thankfully shoes are left at the door. Then a compelling sermon by this imam, – “Allah’s Laws of Balance,” which I will try to paraphrase:
- Be optimistic (“Self Balance”). Tomorrow you start fresh. You have a choice: act or sit on your couch and moan.
- Reach out to your neighbor (“Neighbor Balance”). Here he quoted the Golden Rule, three versions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, with the same core point: love thy neighbor. “Studies show that most American are wary of Muslims, but studies also show that if you know a Muslim, know them as people, the opinion changes,” he said. “And so,” he continued, “Knock on the door of your neighbor. If they slam the door in your face, go to the next neighbor.” Then he asked for a show of hands about how many would pledge to greet a neighbor.
- “Balance in Nature/Politics.” A call to non-violent political action with this lovely little metaphor: A ship. Top deck has water, bottom, none. Bottom asks for water, top says “no,” (all this drawn out with shifts from English to Arabic and back). Bottom says, “Okay, we’ll get our own water,” and starts to drill holes in the bottom of the boat. Top shouts, “No, we’ll share.” He concluded: “You must act. But you must not destroy this beautiful country.”
When worshippers exited, they came through the gauntlet of welcoming signs, then a profusion of interfaith hugs and pictures – a celebration!
At that moment, an experience I had had 10 years ago flooded back to me. When writing my book “Hope Matters: The Untold Story of How Faith Works in America,” I was invited to attend a worship service at a mosque where Abdelhafid Djemil worshiped. I met (and interviewed) Abdel who had been recommended to me by the Brooklyn District Attorney, Joe Hynes. Joe and his staff had launched “Congregations in Partnership,” a highly-successful diversion program in which volunteers from local congregations – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – volunteer to mentor and provide services for young offenders. Abdel served as one of the volunteers. I interviewed Joe, whose story is in my book, who in turn suggested strongly that I interview Abdel.
I contacted Abdel, who said, “To really know me, you should worship with me.” I did, and tried to capture the experience in “Hope Matters.” As the worshippers assemble, I sit on a chair to the side of a modestly carpeted room. A New York cop in uniform hurries in, almost late. Abdel stands shoulder to shoulder, stocking foot touching stocking foot, with the man next to him, a construction worked with cement dust coating his T-shirt and arms. Turning to me, he smiles, gesturing. Would I join him in prayer? I would. I bow. I kneel. I place my forehead on the floor in front of me. We repeat this many times.
Following the service, its leader, a gracious man robed in white who led the service, turns from the front of the room – all of us still on the floor, seated or on our haunches – and asks me, “What do you think? How do you feel?”
I reply, “You have shown me great hospitality in allowing me to worship with you. But perhaps you heard my bones creaking – I’m not used to bending that way. But I feel calm and at peace.” He translates. There are smiles, laughter. The imam says with a grin, “I shortened the service a little for you. I think I heard your bones.”
Later that evening we share dinner. A rabbi has joined us. The imam says grace in Arabic. The rabbi’s jaw drops. “That is exactly the prayer we use in the Jewish tradition. I understood your words completely!” Christians, I note, also frequently invoke this ancient blessing said before meals: “Blessed art Thou Lord our God and King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”
And now, today, February 5, 2017, each of existing in a divisive political climate, face choices: we must pick what we’re each going to do. I plan to go out to Sterling again next week. But everyone’s response will differ.
Find your focus. Keep your spirit. Keep each other.