Recently, I was among more than 200 people who gathered at our local mosque as Muslim neighbors arrived for Friday prayers. We came together in the name of common humanity and decency, standing against the religious bullies who rage in public -- and against the fearful who point fingers in private. We gathered because our Muslim brothers and sisters are hurting. We stood to affirm that -- while we might be of differing religions -- we are all united in a very important way. We are all sick and tired of the "Trump-grump."
It's not that our gathering was unique. I've seen such "standing-together" vigils as ours described in the news quite frequently this past week. As Jaweed Kaleem recently reported, "many Americans are coming together to protect and support the Islamic community." Standing together is vitally important -- for the islamophobic rhetoric clogging the airways is clearly inciting violence. More American mosques are being vandalized everyday as Trump doubles-down to vilify Muslims. Standing together, as so many communities are doing, is a natural response to this madness.
But, as one of the organizers of this gathering, I got to see something that's not been reported in the news. Both the speed at which our community mobilized, and the tremendous diversity of those who participated, was amazing. As someone who just missed the craziness of the 1960s, I had never personally witnessed this kind of spontaneous combustion before.
In fact, organizing this gathering felt a lot like laying a match to a carefully prepared campfire. I'm talking about the kind of fire where kindling is arranged before the sun goes down on a chilly fall day. The kind of fire where a single match-strike is all that is needed to bring light and heat as night falls. All I did to was send a few emails and post a few invitations: "If you can, please come to Logan Islamic Center on Friday Dec. 11th at 12:30 p.m. (the prayer service starts at 1:00 p.m.) to show support for and stand together with Cache Valley Muslims."
Almost immediately, hundreds responded -- like the welcome flame that rises above a common-hearth of compassion. We were Mormons and Buddhists, Christians and Pantheists, students and faculty, city officials and business owners, congregants and community faith-leaders. In this normally quiet -- and very politically conservative -- Utah college town, we were suddenly all activists standing together. I guess I should thank the Trump-grump for that. The hateful rhetoric he spews catalyzed and moved us to action.
"Why are you here?" I asked several people as we waited for our Muslim neighbors to arrive. The answers were as impassioned as they were varied: "I'm disgusted by what I hear in the news, and I just can't take it anymore," said one. "As a Mormon, I understand religious persecution," said another. "Thank you for organizing this, I wanted to do something," said a third. "We are better together," said a forth.
As the one o'clock hour neared, supporters lined the sidewalks and spilled onto the front yard. Several of the reporters who had been sent to cover this story found me in the swelling crowd and they each asked me, "Where is the Imam? Are the Muslims ever going to show up?"
I explained that our local Islamic Center -- even though it is the oldest mosque in our state -- is so small that there is no full-time Imam. Instead, members of the Center manage all sacred and mundane aspects of fellowship as a committee. The role of Imam shifts weekly among the members, who are mainly university students and faculty colleagues. I wasn't sure who was leading the sermon for the 20 or so regular members today, I told them. But, I imagined that he would be here soon.
Together with newspaper and public radio reporters, a growing crowd waited with banners and hastily prepared signs. Phrases like, "We love you," "You are not a statistic," and "We stand with you," anticipated the arrival of the faithful. But as the minutes ticked by without advent, I began wondering just when the congregants would show-up.
Then, as I began scanning the crowd, I noticed several Muslim colleagues who are regular-attenders, smiling and chatting with those holding signs. We were all co-mingling on the front yard together. There was no "us" waiting and no "them" arriving. We were all just sharing space together, while our neighbors waited for the prayer service to begin.
As this realization began sinking in, I turned to notice a young Muslim couple standing on the top step of the green-carpeted stair that is the Center's front porch. Erik Thalman, an American-Muslim board member for the Center began speaking. The service would begin in about five minutes, he told us. Meanwhile, on behalf of the membership, he wanted to express his deep gratitude for the gathering and for the message of support that it communicated. Then he invited all who were willing to accompany him inside to pray.
Later that evening, Logan Islamic Center members held a meeting to discuss the day's events. As Erik told me the next morning:
...I brought out the butcher-paper signs...and we read through them to remember and relive the spirit of love and generosity you all brought today. Many a tear was shed in that little sacred room tonight; many a smile brightened the faces of Americans and immigrants who have intimately felt the pressures [that] recent events and rhetoric are putting on the Muslim community. As the Prophet Muhammad might put it -- peace be upon him -- your gift was like cool water upon our eyes.
Our gathering, catalyzed as it was by the Trump-grump, spontaneously mobilized a community. Hundreds came together in common cause. I am still surprised at how it all unfolded, yet I have no doubt that we will do it again -- the next time such a response is required. Because, as I realized this week, in this Republican stronghold called Utah, this is just how we do community. Yet, I also echo Erik's words. I pray the need for fast-igniting fires soon passes. Instead, I hope we can all -- as a nation -- feel the cool tears of forgiveness and shared grief.