Trying on Muslim

Trying on Muslim June 29, 2015

This is Day 12 of Hindtrospectives’ #MyMosqueMyStory series for Ramadan 2015

By Donelle Bergeson

Donelle1During my first Ramadan, I was a Christian. I was in seminary, completing my M.Div., and had befriended a Muslim through Facebook over the summer. After a month or so of our long-distance chats, I found myself asking: Why don’t I know more about Islam? I had yet to complete my “Cross-Cultural” requirement for graduation, so with some help from my advisor, a scholar of the Abrahamic faiths, we put together an independent study and I began my cross-cultural journey into Islam.

My primary goals were to study a few scholarly texts, read a translation of the Qur’an, and “try on” what it was like to be a Muslim. This included a feeble attempt at fasting for Ramadan and plans to learn the Muslim “salah” or prayer. For the latter, I was desperate to find a mentor in the local Muslim community. That is how I met Nawara.

coffeeNawara is an intelligent, Syrian-born American, who opened her home to me, complete with cardamom-laced Turkish coffee, pita with labna, zaatar, olives and lemon, and a  brand of hospitality I had yet to encounter. It was Nawara who gave me my first glimpse into the Qur’an in Arabic, and we regularly discussed the similarities and differences of our scriptures. As our friendship blossomed, and my interest in Islam grew, she always made a point to tell me she valued my friendship whether I was Christian or Muslim.

Donelle2When I asked Nawara to teach me the salah, she started with “wudu,” (purification of the body) explaining the steps and necessity behind them. As I watched, my mind wandered to baptism, the washing away sins, and back to the present sound water flowing over her hands and arms, trickling off of her face and feet. It was a familiar beauty, retold.

She donned her traditional Syrian clothes for prayer, opened her velvety prayer rug and gave me a brief overview of the salah. Then she began Zuhr, her midday prayer, “Allahu Akbar…”

Watching her, I was gazing through a mystical window, observing an intimate moment with the Divine. I found myself longing to be with her. Take me with you, I was saying to her silently, awaiting her return from the prayerful journey.

Asalaamu alaikum wa rahmatullah…Asalaamu alaikum wa rahmatuallah…” to her right and left sides she spoke softly, before cupping her hands gently in front of her face, whispering inaudible words and finally looking over to me.

From that day forward, I had a seemingly insatiable desire to learn more about Islam. This was in combination with my other seminary courses, my job at a church in the Chicago area, my plans to work in Christian ministry, and a continual restlessness about my placement post-graduation. Nevertheless, I could not shake my need to continue to try on this new garment of faith.

Seven months later, I called Nawara in a frenzy. It was 12:30 p.m. on a Friday.  She didn’t answer, so I left her a voicemail. BEEP. “Nawara, it’s Donelle. I’m sorry for the short notice, but I want to say my Shahada… I feel my heart won’t rest unless I go today. Please call me back so we can go together.”

Soon after, Nawara called. She was on the way to get me.

Donelle3We raced to Morton Grove, and I practically sprinted through the “Men’s Entrance” doors at the masjid. I approached the nearest male wearing a suit and said, “I am here to take my Shahada. I know Juma prayer is over, but I still want to say it today.” I got lucky, it was the Building Director.

With kindness and welcome he replied, “Okay sister, Alhamdulillah. First Juma prayer is over, but our second Juma prayer will start in just a few minutes. Please go upstairs to the sisters’ prayer area and we will have you take your Shahada from there.”

We made our way upstairs to the front of the balcony, peering through the waist-high glass across a sea of men. The light in the masjid was breathtaking and I found myself feeling overwhelmed with joy. Soon after, I said my Shahada from the balcony with Nawara at my side. Up there, I was floating.  Peace settled into my heart and I was literally surrounded with loving embraces by all the sisters’ who were witnesses that day.

Donelle4Though my visits with Nawara have grown less frequent over the years, I still pray on the rosy colored prayer rug she brought to me from Damascus years ago. Nawara had chosen a nickname for me, “Noor,” which I have also adopted among Muslim friends and acquaintances. Beyond friendship, my dear Nawara opened the window into Islam for me, and eventually introduced me to my mosque-home, MEC in Morton Grove.

These days I have made my home just a few blocks from masjid, so I can go there easily, whenever I like. My favorite time for a visit to the is late in the afternoon, when no one is there. Then, I can enjoy the stillness and light, remembering Allah, and reflecting on my continuing story as a Muslim.

Donelle5Donelle Bergeson has a M.Div. from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL and holds her B.A. in Music and Theatre Arts from Southwestern College in Winfield, KS. In addition to working in a private school, Donelle leads a children’s Drama Club and is currently directing an “Eid Concert” for young Muslim girls/youth to be held in late July. Donelle (Noor) resides with her husband and three children and can be found on Facebook.

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