Friday following the Election of 2016
An unnerving hush lay over the street like a pall as nearly two dozen members of The Guibord Center and St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral gathered quietly on the steps on The Islamic Center of Southern California, the oldest and largest mosque in Los Angeles.
Soon Muslim families would arrive here for Friday Noonday Prayer, to worship together, to greet friends, to dwell in their love of God. They would do so even though this specific mosque had been targeted with real threats of violence only days earlier, even though they were still being targeted by a man just elevated to the highest position in the land. Despite the credible dangers, they came anyway, to pray together, to place themselves in God’s care, to surrender in the most powerful and deliberate way to God’s plan instead of their own.
What must it have felt like to them as they walked down the sidewalk to see such a crowd at the entrance of their mosque? Though the leadership and security knew that we were coming, most of the congregation did not. Parents reached out instinctively, drawing their children close. Adults stiffened noticeably and hunkered down as they came. From where we stood, we could see how pale many of the faces were. Worn out. We quickly raised our signs.
“We stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters”
“The Guibord Center supports you”
“Christians supporting Muslims”
Faces were instantly awash with confusion. The relief was palpable. Suddenly children ran up on the grass once more. Young and old burst into smiles.“Thank you” many murmured as they streamed past us, relieved – and dazed.
“We stand with our Muslim friends”
“Honk to stand with us”
Across Vermont Avenue, one of the busiest streets in L.A., a man bent over and resting on the sidewalk sat up, all his attention focused on the disruption we were creating directly across six busy lanes of traffic. He grabbed at his walker and folded it flat. Leaning gingerly on it, he pulled himself up to his feet. As I watched curiously, he stood there still hunched over trying to figure out what was happening. His head swiveled back and forth slowly as he tried to make sense of the writing on our signs. Gradually he commandeered the folded walker and with bold timidity stepped out into the six lanes of traffic to get a closer view. Lane by lane the cars slowed to let him make his way out into the center of the street. Now I took serious notice – in part out of concern for his well-being. On-coming Friday traffic continued to part before him as he gradually traversed the final lanes of asphalt to reach our side of the street. By the time he stepped on the curb, he was standing fully erect. He stood completely still for a long time drinking in the sight before him. When I looked over again, he was gone.
The Mayor and his entourage arrived with TV cameras and quickly slipped inside for the service. We stayed right where we were there on the steps, a statement of solidarity with the Muslim community going about their lives rooted in their faith. Soon members of the Jewish community joined us. The crowd on the sidewalk grew. People introduced themselves. Passing cars slowed to decipher the placards. Passengers turned to their drivers urging them to honk. Honk they did! Several of them circling the block to drive by again. Joy began to fill the air.
And then without warning the service was over and behind us a wave of people poured out into the daylight spilling onto the sidewalk. Suddenly people everywhere were reaching out to shake our hands and thank us. The man from across the street reappeared in the crowd and carefully, intentionally, went down the line, person by person, shaking hands with each one of us, taking time to look us in the eyes and to see us. His expression was indescribable. Tears flowed. Laughter abounded. I don’t know who was more empowered – the Muslim population we had come to protect – or each one of us – or even the people in the street who became unintended witnesses to the truth being made manifest before them: that we can stand together to affirm one another and uphold an ethic of common decency even in the darkest of times.
The great Christian theologian, Tielhard de Chardin, said: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Surely it was that day on the steps of the Islamic Center.