Notes From a Christian at a Mosque

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Have you ever met a Muslim? Have you ever attended a prayer service at an Islamic mosque? Prior to the attacks on 9/11, Islam was a curiosity here in America. While the vast majority of Americans knew very little about it, virtually no one hated it. No one protested outside mosques in the America before 9/11. No presidential candidate campaigned on promises to ban every Muslim on planet Earth – all 1.6 billion of them – from entering the United States. I’m referring to the days before too many of our Senators and Representatives branded all Muslims as enemy combatants, extremists, and/or terrorists. Recently, at the recommendation of one of my professors (shout out to you, Dr. Donna Mote!), I drove to Chattanooga to attend a prayer service someplace I had never been. These are the notes from a Christian on a site visit to a mosque.
 
I visited the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga (ISGC). This particular mosque was established in 2012. The ISGC is a center dedicated to the practice and the promotion of a balanced, comprehensive view of Islam. Those who worship at the ISGC Center strive to embody the middle path the Quran calls them; a path of moderation that is free of extremism and representative of the Islamic vision of a healthy community.
 
I was greeted there by Mandy McAllister – a bilingual, highly trained, well-educated white woman who serves as a teacher at the school housed within the ISGC Center, and as a lay leader at the mosque. Ms. McAllister is a Muslim. She was born and raised here in the United States. Her mother is a member of the clergy in the Presbyterian Church. Ms. McAllister could be Episcopalian like me, or Baptist or Catholic or Protestant like you. She chooses to worship in the Muslim faith. And I respect that.
 
The Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga may sound familiar. You probably remember the four United States Marines who were shot and killed at a U.S. Marine recruiting office in downtown Chattanooga last July. Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, the man accused of killing those four Marines, attended Friday Prayer services at the ISGC Center prior to the heinous crimes he committed.
 
You can probably imagine the firestorm members of the ISGC Center have had to endure in the last 9 months. The cards and letters of support. The death threats. The intentional efforts to welcome all who would worship there. The multiple layers of added security the center and its members need continuously.
 
Ms. McAllister welcomed me, a stranger. She granted me access to the facility – and gave me a tour of the center’s open spaces. She showed me most of the common areas of the facility (the elementary and middle school sections, the gymnasium, the kitchen, and the prayer hall) after the 1:47 afternoon prayer session. Each of those sections of the center is spacious, and filled with natural light from the many windows built within the complex. These spaces were all indoors. I noticed that there were several designated outdoor spaces on both sides of the ISGC Center, but I didn’t have access to those areas because of security concerns. Those areas were surrounded by high metal fences on the perimeter and could also be accessed inside the building by the faculty, staff, students, paid members of the ISGC, and the religious and lay leaders there. The outdoor spaces were well maintained and secure, and the silence I observed for those areas seem ideal for prayer, meditation, and reflection. While I was able to see people praying, I chose to maintain a respectful silence at a considerable distance from them.
 
Ms. McAllister spoke candidly about the challenges of worshipping in a mosque within a politically conservative state (Tennessee), especially after a member of her congregation killed four U.S. Marines last summer before killing himself. That incident brought a great deal of ill will and negative press coverage upon what I observed to be a beautiful, peaceful place of worship. She also shared with me that the Chattanooga community has been largely supportive and understanding.
 
She even provided me with copies of the Qur’an and several brochures and pamphlets about Islam because she wants Christians to know more about both Muslims and Islam. Ms. McAllister feels that knowledge can overcome the fear and the ignorance that frequently comes from the unknown.
 
I’ve known Muslims before, and I find them very similar to everyone else. They love their children, too. They want to live and learn and laugh, too. They want to exercise their faith just as we exercise our faith. And although their name for Him is different, they worship the same God we do.
 
Islam means submission in Arabic. The Islamic word for peace, salaam, is derived from the same root.
 
I had never been to a mosque before this visit, but I’m glad I attended. Thank you, Dr. Mote.
 
Before you condemn 1.6 billion Muslims and their faith, perhaps you should visit a mosque. Perhaps the peace of the prayer service will gently but firmly remind you that they, too, are your brothers and sisters. Notes concluded.

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