By Ricardo Pena
Many years ago I had an interesting experience going through the McDonald’s drive-thru with my wife. We had pulled up to the window to pay when the young Mexican attendant took my money for payment, then before proceeding to process my payment he exclaimed in a comfortably loud tone of voice saying to his coworkers, “Te digo que esta gente nunca sonríe. Así son.” My wife, who wore hijab, led him to believe that I was Arab or something. He definitely didn’t suspect that I was a Mexican Muslim Convert and he certainly didn’t know that I understood exactly what he said, which was “I’m telling you, those people never smile. That’s how they are.” Upon getting our food, he was visibly shocked and presumably embarrassed when I smiled and said, “Hasta luego. Nos vemos” … (see you later) and drove off.
As Muslim Converts we have interesting experiences that could leave us feeling unwelcome in the communities we left and unwelcome in the communities we’ve embraced. A frequent topic of discussion in our Convert Support Group here at the Mecca Center masjid in Willowbrook, Illinois is how to make our masjid more welcoming to Converts. To their credit, it has also been a great concern for members of our board and our Imam. They don’t want to neglect our Convert brothers and sisters, so they created the Convert Support Group in November 2017 to address our challenges. They, too, wonder what it takes to make the masjid a warm and welcoming place. Also, in general, our beloved brothers and sisters who were born into Muslim families wonder about the Convert experience and are wonderfully curious, eager, and open-minded about learning how to make things better for us. Alhamdulilah, this is a blessing. So if you’d like some feedback in this respect then here’s what I’d like to say.
How many times have you gone to a masjid and walked away with an impression that led you to conclude that this masjid is like this and that masjid is like that? Whether the experience was good or bad I bet you could say a lot about this or that particular masjid. We are walking Yelp reviews with a long list of stars and comments about this or that masjid in our heads. We think and talk about the masjid like it is a place, a building, a structure of brick and mortar and we label the masjid by the general community that frequents it. This is the Desi masjid and that is the Syrian masjid and so on. But really, the masjid doesn’t fit any label at all. The fact is that when you are at the masjid, you ARE the masjid. What do I mean by that? Allow me to explain.
Whenever you have a feeling or experience about a masjid it is always because of some interaction you had with the people. It is never about the wudu facilities or the softness of the carpet in the musalla. If a person had a good experience it is because they had a good interaction with someone. If a person had a bad experience it is because they had a difficult interaction with someone. It is always a “someone” that defines the impression a person has about the masjid and you should realize that that “someone” just might be you.
Even if you don’t visit some particular masjid often but you’re there (maybe you were in the neighborhood and you stopped by for Asr prayer) and you have an interaction with another person, then for that interaction YOU are the masjid to that person and THAT person is the masjid to you. If either of you walks away with a good impression then the masjid is credited as being “warm” and “welcoming.” If either of you walks away with a bad impression then it is the masjid that is blamed for lacking “warmth” and “friendliness.” If you want the masjid to be a welcoming place, then you have to be welcoming. If you don’t want the masjid to be characterized as being a difficult place, then you shouldn’t be a difficult person.
We must all strive to make a difference in this respect. We can start today with something so simple as to offer a smile. Do you wonder why Muslims have a reputation for being people who “never smile”? If we behave the way we should then none of us should ever have an experience like the one I had at McDonald’s that day. Indeed the Prophet (saw) taught us that a smile is a charity. Subhan’Allah. It is free and we have an unlimited supply of it to give. We can shake the hand of the people to our left and right after the Salah. We can say “Ameen” in a loud, single, unified, choir-like voice after the Imam recites Al-Fatiha. We can learn each other’s names. We can invite each other over for Iftar as we are in the month of Ramadan right now and we can support our masjid by attending its events and connecting positively with others while we’re there.
We all want to have a warm and welcoming experience when we go to the masjid, but in reality what we really want is for our brothers and sisters to be warm, welcoming, and friendly to us. However, in order to make this a reality, then each and every one of us must take responsibility for the character of our masjid by being warm, welcoming, friendly, and patient to others. Don’t say that this masjid is like this or that this masjid is like that but rather it is YOU that must be like this or like that in order to give the masjid a beautiful character. Because the truth is that the moment you set foot in the masjid, then from that moment on and all the while that you are there … please realize that you ARE the masjid and it is you who makes the masjid beautiful or it is you who makes the masjid ugly to someone else.