The next Friday, he did as promised and I was ushered up the stairs to the women and children’s section above and partitioned away from the main prayer room by glass. In the church I grew up in, such a room was called the “cry room.” It was provided for the parents of restless youngsters so the cries of their little ones would not disturb those in the sanctuary and yet the parents wouldn’t miss out on the main service as it was broadcast through the sound system into the cry room.
As soon as I emerged at the top of the stairs, I was greeted with warm welcomes, hugs, and cheek-to-cheek double kisses from many if not most of the women there. Few spoke English but their hospitality I remember vividly to this day, some twenty-five years later. They had absolutely no reservations inviting a white-skinned woman from another religion into their midst. None. I wonder how many churches would be so welcoming with the situation in reverse?
As I observed the prayer service for the men through the glass, I noticed that only a couple of women in the “cry room” were following along with the prayers and prostrations. They seemed to be older women, perhaps beyond the years of mothering youngsters, who therefore had some time and freedom to devote to worship and spiritual practice. (On the other side of mothering young children myself, I know how hard it is to devote oneself to one’s spirituality, when diapers, feedings, tantrums, and general lack of sleep intrude.) Otherwise, the room full of Muslim women and children was joyous, with lots of quiet laughter, playtime, and community-making going on between the children and moms.
At one point toward the end of the service, my black scarf, having not secured it very well, began to slip off the top of my head, revealing some of my hair. I kept pulling it all the way forward of my bangs, not wanting to offend them in their place of reverence.
However, after several futile attempts at keeping it up, one of the older women decided to help out. She came over and rather than helping me pull it up or retie it, she simply pulled it down all the way and said, “There.” The rest of the women gasped and came forward, admiring my golden blonde hair, touching it, commenting on it—clearly not offended in the least.
Soon after this event I would spend a summer in the Middle East with Muslim Arabs. Again and again I was treated with ultimate respect and generous hospitality in every house I entered, even though I came from America.
If you have never been friends with a Muslim or an Arab or have never attended a mosque, I would encourage you to do so. Fear of the “other,” the “stranger”, the unknown is what fuels the fire of assigning blame to whole people groups and entire religions for the actions of a few extremists.
Love thy neighbor as thyself. Muslims taught me what this looks like.