Growing up in Ohio in the 70s and 80s, we were pretty insulated from diversity. I can not remember any children from elementary school that were not exactly like me; white, Christian, traditional family unit in residence.
By the 6th grade, we had 1 African-American teacher and I knew a few friends by then who had parents who divorced.
In Junior High and High School, my circle of exposure to peers from different neighborhoods and economic situations expanded in triplicate. I met more people who were black, some Asian and some Hispanic. I knew some of my classmates had different religions than my own. We never really discussed it, unless there was a holiday that happened to take them away from school when we all were there. I just knew that they were different, somehow, but not that much different from me.
The big scandalous family that was the topic of many childhood theories was the family that lived down the street. We never saw any men or older women at the house, only the eldest daughters. There were more than 5 children living in the house at any given time. The girls wore long skirts and weren’t permitted to cut their hair or wear short sleeve shirts. They didn’t celebrate birthdays, Christmas or go trick or treating. They were always welcoming if you wanted to visit on the stoop, but you were never invited into their home. I later learned that they were followers of the Jehovah’s Witness faith. I know that part of the tenants of the Jehovah’s faith is proselytizing, but they never spoke to us about their beliefs, and I never read much of anything about their religion. How much do I know about their religion even today? Nothing more than the link I posted for your reference.
Sometimes I feel like we are the scandalous family in our neighborhood.
What must the neighbors wonder about us?
We moved in 8 years ago, we are mostly quiet. We hang out in our yard together, we do yard work together, we ride our bikes, we chat with the neighbors over the fence. We decorate our home at all the common times and we take tins of cookies to our neighbors at Christmas. A few of the families know for sure that we are a Muslim family, some of the neighbors might suspect as much because they see the girls and me in our school appropriate clothing.
From the outside looking in, I wonder what do they wonder about us?
I do a lot of reaching out to my own family members, friends, acquaintances and people with whom I work. I reach out to women who marry into Muslim families and try to be a source of support and a resource for them.
What can I do to reach out to the people who live around me?
The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo is a highly visible building right off one of the major highways into the city near where I live. It is easily recognized as a mosque due to its distinct architecture The Islamic Center has a long history of fostering inter-faith dialogue, the Imam and board members as well as members of the community participate in outreach programs, including food banks and growing a kitchen garden on the grounds of the Center for fresh vegetables to feed the needy. They hold an annual International Festival that is open to the public, during which you can take public tours of the Mosque and learn the history of Muslims in the area, and how the Mosque became a national landmark. There are health fairs and tour groups from different churches and organizations visiting, and learning. The Imam is always available to answer questions, and he is very friendly and approachable.
Last Sunday, September 30, The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo was the target of an arsonist. The man entered the building in the late afternoon on Sunday, set fire on the second floor of the Mosque. The second floor is where the prayer hall is located, as well as many different classrooms and the Imam’s office. As of right now, the name and religion of the man is not known, but there is a suspect who was taken into custody.
What happened in this man’s life that caused him to target this Mosque?
How could this have been prevented?
If your only exposure to Islam is what is shown on the nightly news, you know next to nothing about the religion.
That next to nothing feeds on prejudice and fosters hatred. Why? Because out of everything on this earth, most people fear the unknown.
What would happen if each one of us reached out to our neighbors and became that nice Muslim family next door?
What would happen if we invited our neighbors into our homes and they saw our houses were just like theirs? We ate food just like theirs, and the kitchen has regular plates and glasses, the sofas were comfortable and our families are not scandalous, not strange, not violent, and not the object of prejudice and hatred.
Our families are built with love, trust, commitment and pride. Just like theirs.