Mosque: Befriending community is working 1 year later

NORFOLK, Va. — Last winter, Anne Zobel stood outside the Tidewater Islamic Center holding a sign that said, “I am a Christian and I support Muslims.”


She nearly got a ticket for it, until the security man at the mosque stepped in.

While this was happening, two women peeked through the windows of the mosque, curious about the commotion. When they learned it was someone who supported them, they went outside, put their arms around her and brought her inside for a cup of coffee.

The next week, Zobel, 54, brought her husband to the mosque. Then she brought a friend. Then she brought her priest and his wife.

“Our neighbors at the mosque are our friends at the mosque now,” Zobel said.

It’s a friendship forged just as the Tidewater Islamic Center has opened its doors and welcomed neighbors.

Its leaders watched then-presidential candidate Donald Trump call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, and they began to reach out. Over holiday dinners and informal chats over coffee, they’ve been trying to educate the wider community about Islam.

“It’s harder to hate someone when you know them,” said Saher Mirza, one of the women who befriended Zobel. “Our goal is to put a face on being Muslim.”

At first, they had meet and greets on Fridays, before worship. They set out pastries and offered to answer questions. Lots came. Then in February, they had a coffee and conversation event, and 250 people showed up. They were shocked. That was the tipping point that opened the door to a flood of invitations to speak to community groups. Then, at a dinner fundraiser they held for refugees, another couple hundred people showed up.

“This past year was unprecedented,” Mirza said.

She and Huma Hyder, another volunteer, said they’re blown away by the interest. And they want to do more.

“My suggestion to people is come talk to us if you have a question. You are not going to offend us,” Mirza said.

Martha and John Stewart were among the people who came to lend their support when it felt like hate was on the rise.

John Stewart, 72, said he came to the mosque because he felt “a sense of wanting to push back against what seemed to be a fairly growing and callous approach to refugees in the United States.”

He went to a service at the mosque and said he felt odd and awkward. He didn’t know where he could and couldn’t go, and he didn’t talk to anybody. “I was just kind of there,” he said.

But when he was invited back, it was gratifying. Soon, his wife joined him.

“What I experienced was a whole group of people who met me with a ready smile and a desire to be understood, and with welcoming arms for me to understand their culture,” he said.

The couple formed bonds with refugee families.

“If it hadn’t been for the events going on at the mosque, and other events, then I would just be going about my daily life and reading the paper and having certain thoughts about Islam as a whole,” said Martha Stewart, 67.

Marianne Manning, 70, also went to the mosque to show her support.

“I think the mosque - they are trying so hard to get people to meet them, to understand,” she said. “I think it’s just wonderful that they’re opening themselves up, which is pretty scary under a lot of the circumstances right now.”

She also invited Mirza to her Episcopal church in Virginia Beach, both for services and to answer questions. She plans to keep going to the mosque and bringing her church friends.

When Mirza helped spread the word about a blanket drive for refugees in Lebanon, she got an overwhelming response on Facebook from her new friends. The word got out to several churches, and blankets poured in. A year ago, that would not have happened, she said.

Both Hyder and Mirza said the past year of work is just the first step.

“At the end of the day, humanity is the biggest common denominator,” Mirza said.


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