Seventeen first-year students. One teaching assistant. One professor. And me. This was the group that boarded two Luther College vans to drive up to the Twin Cities on Friday morning.
I had woken early in eager anticipation of this field trip. We were going to visit the Masjid An-Nur mosque, which was exciting because I'd never visited a mosque before. (And I had been promised a quick trip to IKEA for dinner!)
The ride up was uneventful (except for a few wrong turns), and after a quick lunch we headed over to the "Mosque of The Light," a prominent African American mosque in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.
A place of welcome
As soon as we entered the building, congregants greeted us with smiles and welcoming comments. A petite 73-year-old woman, "Sister Clara," ushered us females urgently to the far end of the narrow hallway. "Sisters, this way," she said repeatedly while she motioned us to follow her.
"Sisters." I liked it. We were part of something here. Part of a family.
The women entered the prayer room from the back while the men took their places in front. Boys were with the men (even babies) and girls sat with the women. Most people sat on the floor, but some chairs were available for the elderly.
Unity supersedes diversity
We were not the only visitors that Friday afternoon. Another J-term class from Hamline University sat amongst us as well. We later found out that this mosque frequently welcomes visitors who want to experience Islam.
The Imam, a stately man, addressed us visitors directly and thanked us for being there. He emphasized that Christians and Muslims share the pursuit of knowledge—to be life-long learners.
And with that, he proceeded systematically to share with us some key Islamic teachings, "Islamic Concepts for Life," which he hoped we would find beneficial. His goal was to focus on the things that unite us, rather than divide us. "Think on these matters," he said in conclusion.
After the service had ended, I turned to one of the students and asked her what she thought. "It was kind of like regular church," she said. "Not that different."
Mission accomplished. Another student said that she really appreciated that the Imam consciously found ways to focus on our similarities—the things that unite us as humans. "It made me want to go out in the world and do good things," said a third.
More experience than we bargained for
Being able to experience Islam in a warm and welcoming setting was perhaps the most important and impactful part of this trip. With Islamophobia alive and well in the news media, movies and television shows, it is key that non-Muslims have a chance to experience and understand that Islam is a religion of peace.
However, we had one more stop to make before we headed back (via IKEA). Todd had arranged for us to meet with members of Council on American–Islamic Relations-Minnesota to learn about their civil rights work.
We entered the nondescript office building and crammed into the elevators to get to our meeting on the fourth floor. After a detour to the lower level, where our host, Ellen, boarded our elevator, we came to an abrupt stop somewhere between the third and fourth floors.
Eleven of us were actually stuck in an elevator (a first for most of us!). Good thing we had our phones—and Ellen. She swiftly called for assistance. While we waited to be rescued, we asked Ellen about her work. She told us stories of Muslims getting fired for wanting to adhere to their prayer schedule while at work. Or getting turned down for jobs for wearing a hijab. We listened in awe, not quite able to grasp that this actually happens in the 21st century—in America!
Over an hour (and lots of social media updates) later, we finally felt the elevator start to move and arrived safely at our destination.
Emily Alcock (one of the students stuck in the elevator) reflected: "The lawyers at CAIR helped me put into perceptive the difficulties that can come with being a Muslim (or any minority) in the United States. Actually going to CAIR made me realize how real these problems are and appreciate the Muslim community's strength even more."
Experiential learning is worth it (and essential)
Despite getting stuck in an elevator (and a pretty scary ride back to Decorah on icy, snow-covered roads), the trip was definitely worth it.
Seventeen young people have now experienced Islam, met kind, welcoming Muslims, and learned what unites us—and what Islam really stands for. They can in turn influence others to take a stand for freedom of religious expression—for all people.
Emily Holm, Luther first-year, sums it up well: "Religion, in my opinion, is a subject that begs to be experienced beyond the classroom. Even after learning about Islam for the past month, I was shocked by our day-in-the-life experience. I left with a deeper understanding, respect and appreciation for the Muslim community that would not have been possible without physically leaving Luther's 'bubble.'"