January 18, 2016

A visit to a mosque

Written by  Elizabeth and Sara Martin
Sara (left) and Elizabeth (right) play with a pet rabbit in Central Asia in this 2007 photo. Sara (left) and Elizabeth (right) play with a pet rabbit in Central Asia in this 2007 photo. Photo provided by author.

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.

When your mother is a member of the Christian/Muslim Relations Team at EMM and you have lived abroad, you might be used to stepping outside your comfort zone. Elizabeth, age 14, and Sara, age 20, share their reflections about visiting a local mosque in Lancaster, Pa.

By Elizabeth

When I went to the Islamic Center, I felt … hungry. Mom refused to let me eat anything before we got in the car and my last meal was like four whole hours ago! I had run three miles before coming and I was starving. I couldn’t imagine how hungry some of the Muslim people who were fasting all day must be. Plus, I had been forced to wear long jeans in the middle of July. (Apparently my mom doesn’t understand how extremely hard it is to fit into skinny jeans after running in the scorching heat and sweating bucketfuls.) On top of that, my sister had made me wear her heavy long-sleeved Punjabi dress instead of the plain colored T-shirt I had grabbed from the contents of my drawer.

Divided by gender

As we arrived, we were separated into two different rooms based on gender, and honestly I was kind of relieved. That was 50 percent fewer people I had to talk to. Being an introvert sort of runs in my family. Unfortunately, there were still countless women who, upon meeting me, squeezed me and kissed my face and then laughed at my typical, uncomfortable teenager reaction.

They all motioned us to the front of the food line and insisted that we eat first, as if we were the ones who had been fasting all day. Only a few minutes after we sat down to eat the soup, there was a call to prayer and everyone jumped up, rushing to clean up. I had to admit, I was pretty disappointed that I hadn’t gotten to finish my soup.

By Sara

As the call to prayer filled the room, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to remember those words buried deep in my memory for eight years, the daily litany from my childhood. I was a little worried about coming to the mosque tonight. I wanted to honor the invitation of our friends, but I had never been inside a Muslim place of worship before. I wore my favorite short-sleeved dress from Central Asia over jeans, but I hesitated when my mom said we should wear headscarves.

“Mom,” I replied, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m interested in becoming a Muslim.”

She reminded me that I could see wearing a scarf as an opportunity to be culturally sensitive, so I agreed. I was thankful now for the scarf, but upon observing that even the smallest girls wore sleeves that fell past their elbows, I wished I had brought a jacket to pull on over my dress.

Breaking the fast

After the call to prayer, two buffets were quickly set up — one on the women’s side of the room and the other on the men’s side. Quickly realizing that the thin soup from earlier in the evening was only an appetizer, we joined the line and piled our plates with rice, chicken, and stuffed grape leaves.

The women greeted each other with hugs and kisses and sat in groups on the floor. We were obviously the outsiders, and yet the warmth with which the women interacted, their smiles and their friendliness, reminded me of the many times I had experienced similar hospitality in Central Asia. I had been afraid of feeling a spiritual tension in the room; instead, I saw community. I felt strangely at home.

Making connections

Many of the women who introduced themselves during the meal were doctors. They would ask me what my college major was, would question my mom on her work as a nurse. The friend who had invited us to the Islamic Center told me that she had appreciated a recent post on my blog. I responded that I had many other posts on my blog and she promised to read them. I wondered what she would think of me if she did so, wondered whether she would be offended by a teenage girl who felt accepted in a mosque, but who wrote about Jesus.

Soon the prayers started, and my sister and mom and I retreated to the back of the room. We were free to observe the prayer rituals, and, for a while, I did, but then I closed my eyes and I prayed, too.

At the end of the prayer time, I watched as women knelt in lines, facing the east, and lowered themselves to the ground for a few seconds before rising back to their knees. They went through a number of these motions, some repeating the rituals for an additional amount of time. My mom told us that perhaps some people were making up for prayers they had missed earlier in the day. I wondered why the Christians I knew, including myself, were not more conscientious about making up missed prayer times.

We left soon after the prayers. We sent my sister over to the middle of the room so she could motion to my dad. My sister, mom, and I said our goodbyes and exited the room, stopping by the shoe rack on the way out the door to get our shoes from the pile of sandals and flip flops. We walked with my dad to the car, pausing for a few minutes to meet a man from Central Asia. Then we settled into our minivan with my sister eagerly pulling off her headscarf. I was a little sad to watch the Islamic Center fade behind our car, knowing that I may not soon have another chance to step into a place that felt so much like my childhood home. I was surprised at how included in the community I felt.

Elizabeth and Sara Martin, along with their brother Micah, lived in Central Asia during the time their parents served there. Their mother Sheryl is a member of EMM’s Christian/Muslim Relations Team and their father Steve is Finance director at EMM. The family attends Blainsport Mennonite Church in Reinholds, Pa.

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.