"You are not alone. You are not the only one. There are people on the outside who are listening and will continue to be there for you." That’s the message that Mahdia Lynn, director of Masjid al-Rabia, hopes to send incarcerated LGBT Muslims this Ramadan.
Masjid al-Rabia, which describes itself as “a new organization in Chicago providing spiritual care for marginalized Muslims” opened its doors last December for their first jummah. Communal prayers have occurred there every Friday since in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. 2016 was spent tirelessly bringing Masjid al-Rabia into existence and working with local partners to to create “a community space for prayer that was woman centered, LGBT affirming, and pluralist.” "Chicago's interfaith community was seminal in helping us find a space" recounts Lynn.
This knack for building strategic partnerships was essential in realizing Masjid al-Rabia’s Ramadan programing this year. Their #longestdayssacrednignts campaign in partnership with Everyone is Gay is providing “an entire month of Ramadan programming for LGBTQIA+ Muslim youth” including letters from LGBTQ Muslims and a Queer/Trans Ramadan Playlist that can only be described as super badass.
Bringing the dream of a Ramadan Care Package Program to fruition involved tapping into an even wider network. The Ramadan Care Package Program is connected to Masjid al-Rabia’s The Black and Pink Crescent, a pen pal program which receives administrative support from Black and Pink and Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. The Black and Pink Crescent was formed early in the life of Masjid al-Rabia. "A very old and good friend of mine had given me a call to say there was a trans woman locked up in county jail who needed support and [asked] if I knew anybody or anything I could do to help her out” said Mahdia Lynn. “It turned into a conversation about how there are no spiritual supports for incarcerated LGBT people of faith."
Mahdia reached out to Black and Pink and to the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project to access their lists and support Muslims in their network. By the middle of May, a few dozen people were involved on the inside and outside to provide support. Masjid al-Rabia placed an advertisement in Black and Pink's national newsletter “and within a two weeks had over 150 letters from new people." Mahdia reported that Masjid al-Rabia had received 212 letters so far, a number which continues to grow. "There's nothing being done for Muslims on the inside who happen to be gay or transgender or queer, so I decided to focus on supporting incarcerated Muslims as part of our mission" asserted Mahdia Lynn.
She says this mission “really kicked into high gear this Ramadan.” Masjid al-Rabia initially raised $500 for the Ramadan Care Package Program, which funded packages including Qurans and spiritual information. Some funds also went towards correspondent’s commissary accounts. Mahdia was surprised by the amount of requests Masjid al-Rabia received: "We were completely unprepared for those kind of numbers. We needed people to send resources. We needed stamps. We needed paper. We needed a printer."
Masjid al-Rabia operates on a microscopic budget, one that in Mahdia's words "rotates right around zero dollars and zero cents." So the members of the board reached out to their networks and garnered enough donations to purchase immediate needs. "A sister donated a brand new printer and copier, people donated enough money to buy 300 stamps. We have notebooks and paper."
This outpouring of support is excellent news, but more donations are needed to maintain momentum. Masjid al-Rabia is all volunteer run and operates “out of the goodwill of our international community” says Lynn. You can donate resources to Masjid al-Rabia’s programs and services online, or get in touch to set up a time to meet in Chicago and get involved. “Monetary donations get us pretty far; nobody wants to donate a dozen staplers or a dozen boxes of staples” said Lynn. “In a few months we went from having this little pen pal program to having a full-blown prison ministry.” One of the best ways that you can get involved is by signing up to be a pen pal. “You don’t have to be Muslim, you don’t have to be LGBTQ; a lot of people are just reaching out for a connection with someone who understands” Lynn explained.
When asked what impact she hoped the 2017 Ramadan Care Package Program will have, Mahdia said “There’s a thing that we hear back constantly: ‘I thought I was the only one.’ Our prison system serves to isolate people, cut people off from the world. This is doubly true for LGBT people of faith. We’re trying to fill a gap and also be a service.”
Mahdia Lynn is part of our Trans and Muslim Project! Click here to learn more!
Cyree Jarelle Johnson is an essayist and poet from New Jersey. They are a Poetry Editor at The Deaf Poets Society, Managing Editor at Transfaith, and a candidate for an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University.