“I have to start by apologizing. I’ve been at the church for five years, and this is the first time I’ve come to introduce myself.”
“Well, it has been five years and I have not come to introduce myself to you, either. So… now we are both guilty, and that is over.”
Beautiful, permission-giving words from a beautiful man who I am now proud to call my friend, Imam Ismet Akcin, of the Islamic Center of Rochester, New York.
I’m not a very political person. And I’m not one to act quickly. There are enough people doing that to have it covered, and I have no need to be one more. But, earlier that morning as I prayed, I felt the weight of fear and anger of the world right now. It was heavy and surrounding. The message was clear. “It’s time. Go see the Imam. Ask what you can do. Show that you care. Build love.”
So that afternoon, on my way into Twelve Corners Presbyterian Church (the other church community I pastor, along with Companions on the Way), I stopped for my first time into the Islamic Center. It was during one of their afternoon prayers. I stood there in my clerical collar, clergy vest, and jeans, looking at pamphlets and familiarizing myself with the work of the center and their identity as Muslims. A young man passed me, did a double take, and came over. He extended his hand, which turned into a hug, and said, “I heard that Jesus was coming back, but I didn’t know it would be today!” (If you don’t know me, I have long hair and a beard and get told I look like a white Jesus pretty often, so I loved this.) The Imam came over, and invited me into his office, where we made our apologies.
After apologies came introductions and Imam Ismet and I got to know about each other’s ministries. He never asked why I came that day. He knew. We talked about what the people of his center were experiencing. They had just had to cancel a Peace Rally because they didn’t feel it was safe. (Yep, fear canceled peace. God, help us!) We talked about the growing sense of fear and anger in the nation for both Muslims and non-Muslims. “The people who commit these terrorist acts – I don’t care what they call themselves – they are not Muslim! You cannot do what they do and be Muslim,” he would say a number of times that afternoon. We talked about the great need for the things that bring us together over the things that separate us, and to speak in claims of what we’re for over what we’re against. Then the phone rang.
On the other end was a woman from Rochester who had seen that the center’s contact information had been posted online by those who opposed Islam, with the encouragement to call or email the center with messages of anger and even hate. She was worried and asked if he had received any of those messages. He said no. By phone and email, he had received only support. Facebook was a different story, but he didn’t go into details. He put the woman on speakerphone, asking her if it was ok if they included “our honored guest” (a humbled me) in the conversation. We talked about God, Islam, Christianity, and our common longing for love to overcome fear. We must have talked for over an hour before sharing words of blessing and prayer for one another and ending the call.
The call had gone on so long, Imam Ismet had missed one of his prayer times. “She was speaking so beautifully, I didn’t want to stop her,” he said. So now it was time to pray the missed prayer. He offered to get me coffee while I waited. “No that’s ok,” I said, “but… would it be appropriate if I asked to pray with you?” He seemed surprised that I wanted to, but welcomed me to join him. He performed a ritual preparation for prayer called Wud’u, and we walked toward the worship space. Removing our shoes, we entered into the beautifully carpeted, but simple, space. There were just a few of us, as most people were still at work. He stood on the carpet and motioned to a chair right next to where he stood. “Would you like to sit while I pray,” he asked. “Oh, ok,” I answered, “is it more appropriate for me to just watch?” He said, “I just don’t want you to get in trouble. What if one of the people from your congregation sees you praying with me?” Brother, I’d be ashamed if one of my parishioners saw me not praying with you. And so we prayed. I watched him and stumbled through the motions (I had seen them once before when I had Googled Islamic prayer practices, but it was the first time I had tried them). He spoke his words of prayer and I meditated on mine. It was sacred.
After the prayer, which took about five minutes, we headed back to his office. We chatted some more, told stories, and watched a little Magnum P.I., which had been playing on his computer in the background since I got there. We hung out. Then, because the brief prayer had gotten pushed back, the time for the longer (ten minute) sunset prayer was approaching. He asked if I could stay for that one, too, and I was honored to. He told me that I was welcome to stay with him, but he needed to prepare. I had an evening service at my church that night, myself, so I said I could just work on that. So, there we sat. He sat at his desk, singing his preparations for worshipping God, and I sat at a table reading and writing my preparations for worshipping God. The same God.
The singing began over the speakers of the center, letting us know it was time to start. We walked back down the hallway that was now beginning to seem familiar to me, removed our shoes, and walked again into the holy space. There were a few more people there this time. A shoulder-to-shoulder line toward the front of the space. Imam Ismet walked to the very front. I stayed behind the line, ready to pray, but not wanting to get in the way. One of the young men turned around, smiled and motioned me to join the line. “Are you sure,” I asked? He smiled and motioned again. When I got to the end of the line, I put about half-a-person worth of space between me and the next guy. He turned to me, “are you praying?” “Yes,” I whispered. He pulled me closer to him, putting me where I belonged, physically connected to the others in prayer. (It is not a prayer style that comes with personal space! Instead it comes with connection – spiritual and physical.) The movements of the prayer, itself, were very similar to the ones from earlier, but timed differently and set to the song of a lone cantor. Again, they meditated on their words to God, and I on mine. The one vocalized word we shared in common – Amen – “So let it be.”
After the prayer, we returned again to Imam Ismet’s office. Some students of the Qur’an had come to see him. I had been there about three hours and was so grateful for all of his time and energy spent on me, especially when I had come to see how I could help him! I told him I needed to go, and his students needed him. We made sure we would contact each other again soon. We hugged, we thanked, we blessed. And I headed back to my car with a very full spirit.
Now. Why am I writing about this? It was a personal experience. Why am I sharing it? To be honest, I don’t exactly know. Maybe it’s because I’m a storyteller and I think it’s a beautiful story. Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor, and I pray that somehow God will show you something in the story that you need to see, like I did. Maybe it’s because I’m a peacemaker, and I see so much negativity and division, even among those using negativity to try to bring about justice, that I wanted to put something into the world that spoke only about building up. I don’t know.
But whatever this writing is for, I am so grateful for the gift of my new friend, Imam Ismet, and for the open-arms hospitality of everyone at the Islamic Center to the white-Jesus-looking, clergy-collar-and-jeans-wearing, cowboy-hat-holding stranger. And the message that I received that morning now lives in me. “It’s time. Go see. Ask what you can do. Show that you care. Build love.” It’s the message of Christianity. It’s the message of Islam. It’s the message of every religion I know, because it’s the message of God.