“Mama, can we go somewhere fun?” my kids asked me as I picked them up from Saturday school. I explained that no, we couldn’t because I was feeling sad to have lost a dear teacher that morning, and that I wanted nothing more than to go home. I did remind them, however, that later we had previously committed to an outdoor Movie Night with our neighbors. Inwardly, I wondered if I could muster the energy to engage.
The morning was spent in spurts of weeping for a beloved teacher and mentor, Dr. Maher Hathout, one of the first people to guide me in claiming Islam as my own. My children were at Saturday school when I first received the news. I had time to cry and reflect out loud to my husband the myriad ways that Dr. Hathout touched my and our lives–from the years at youth group to the special time we hosted Dr. Hathout at our home up north to the last visit I had with him a few months ago to discuss the role of the mosque in America.
As the time for the neighborhood Movie Night approached, I had no desire to socialize. For my kids’ sake, I joined our neighbors outside where a portable screen was already playing the Lego Movie. Each family contributed a treat–hot chocolate, popcorn, apple cider, and even a small fire pit for s’mores making. At first, I kept my distance (kindly), because I didn’t feel like explaining my silence. My neighbors, though, were lovingly persistent. They pulled up a chair for me, offered me drinks, cracked jokes, asked about each member of my family, brought warm blankets for my kids…
After the movie, the adults sat in a circle around the fire pit and chatted while the kids played. Suddenly, I realized that, by being there with my neighbors, I was honoring Dr. Hathout’s legacy. He was the first one who taught me that mutual respect and love was the key to winning hearts, that mercy was incumbent upon us as Muslims, and that service to others was a daily habit, not restricted to Ramadan and other holidays.
In these times of ugly, vicious acts disguised under the pretense of religion, I pledged that I would work to revive Muslims’ reputation for exhibiting mercy, generosity, honesty, kindness, and love by serving the community. To follow in the example of our dear beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we as Muslims are to embody mercy to all of mankind. It was on this night that a fire was lit in my heart to do something proactive about the misunderstandings preventing Muslims and non-Muslims from connecting, and from there, a quick brainstorm with Michal resulted in the idea for the initiative, Miss Understanding. We started it on Martin Luther King Jr. day exactly a year ago today.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the doors that God has opened for us. Three Friendship Mixers, five training workshops, Ramadan and Christmas dinners, and several coffee dates with Michal later, I am deeply grateful to God for filling a single void in Jan. 2015 with countless new friendships across religious and cultural boundaries. I look back at our posts and realize how quickly our story turned from “Me and Michal” to “You and Your Friend.” In other words, God showed us early on that it was never about us–it was about bringing other people together to experience an enriching and blessed friendship based on God leading the way.