The following is my final paper written for my Diversity 598 class required for my masters program. Excuse the formal tone and academic citations, this is a blog after all, but I hope you’ll enjoy this memory of a very precious and intriguing experience I was able to have.
The assignment was to experience a person or culture which is different from my own, to really step outside my comfort zone and become more familiar with diversity in action. After the experience, I was assigned to write a paper describing the event and relating it back to the content studied throughout the course.
I chose to attend a Friday service or Jumu’ah at the Islamic Center of Boise and interview one of the female members of the congregation for this assignment. Initially, I considered attending a Catholic church in my small town which offers meetings in Spanish, as I do not speak Spanish fluently, but I was already familiar with the Catholic faith and the congregation and really wanted to step outside my level of comfort for this assignment. Having been raised in small-town, rural, United States, I had never met and rarely seen any Muslims in person. I was thrilled to be able to attend the Friday meeting held on June 8, 2018.
Prior to attending services, I was extremely nervous concerning what I should wear and how I should move through the building and church meeting. I contacted the center via email and was referred to one of the older female members named Dalia. Dalia instructed me to wear modest clothing and to bring a head scarf for the meeting. She invited me to come a little early to the meeting, to stay afterwards to discuss beliefs with her, and to participate in the evening meal to break the fast as my visit fell on the second to last day of Ramadan. I invited my sister to attend with me, and we had several conversations and internet-searches between us as to what was appropriate to wear and do during a Muslim church service. We were both very afraid of offending the members and of doing something inappropriate out of ignorance.
Once we had our head scarfs properly situated, we entered the center after removing our shoes and were greeted by Tyler (he has chosen to use an Americanized name) who is a refugee from Africa (he did not specify which country). He shook our hands, a gesture I waited for him to initiate thanks to the work from Al-Mutawah (2016) and introduced us to Dalia. Dalia led us into a room separate from the men and found us seats near the back so we could view all the proceedings. She provided us a brief outline of the service and left us to pray and socialize with the other women. We viewed the imam leading the prayers and giving the sermon on a large television screen.
There was a mixture of African and Middle Eastern women and several adorable babies participating in the service. The African women, as explained later by Dalia, were primarily refugees from various countries and cultures. As Mutua (2016) explains, I as a member of the host community held pre-conceived ideas of refugees as desperate, impoverished, and potentially harmful. What I actually encountered were mothers, much like myself, who struggled to keep their small children content and quiet during worship services. The small children drew shapes in the carpet when they were bored of the sermon. Much of the sermon was difficult to understand as well as all the prayers as so much of the language used is Arabic. We were unsure of what to do during the prayers and chose to stand with the congregation once then remain seated for the duration.
Afterwards Dalia, my sister, and I discussed what we had experienced and Dalia answered questions regarding her faith as well as her culture. She shared with us the story of Muhammed as well as of Abraham and Ishmael from the Islamic perspective. We discussed the dress and health code, religious obligations, family dynamics, contraception, education, prejudice and politics. I have a follow-up appointment with Dalia to discuss more questions which came up after I had left the center, we will be talking on the phone on June 26, 2018.
This experience was completely new, intimidating, exciting, and eye-opening for me. I understand on a deeper level why Delgado and Stefancic (2001) as well as Chin and Rudelius-Palmer (2010) focus on storytelling and actually experiencing diverse peoples and cultures as the only true way to practice inclusion. I understand the Muslim religion and culture far better than I did before this experience, and have the beginnings of a friendship with Dalia. I will admit that I was nervous and fearful about attending a Muslim service. I was concerned I would be offensive in some way or seen as an ignorant and materialistic westerner. My pre-conceived biases stemmed from nothing other than snippets and pieces of news headlines that mainly centered on terrorism and Muslim extremism. I was so unfamiliar with Islam that I was a little fearful to attend the Jumu’ah. What I encountered in the Islamic Center of Boise and in the individual Dalia was completely different from anything I had learned through headline news. The story of Dalia and her culture have indeed brought understanding between two cultures: mine and hers (Chin & Rudelius-Palmer, 2010).
I plan to join the Muslim community and my new friend Dalia for a day of Ramadan next year and also plan to attend the Jewish Synagogue in Boise; the comparison of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism is just too tempting to resist. Kahil (2016) states that “The more people travel, establish diverse friendships, and experience the richness of each other’s cultures, the less likely they are to bomb them (p. 338).” Not that I have ever wanted to bomb anyone, but I have found that the more diversity I experience, the more diversity I want to experience, which is how I interpret Kahil’s (2016) words.
This experience with Islam and Muslim people has forever change me and the way that I view the world. There is a vast religion and belief system which I know little about and want to know more. I realize now how lacking my understanding of politics and history is on this subject, and I cannot afford to simply rely on news headlines—highlighting conflict and terrorism—to shape my view of such a large portion of the world.
I did, in fact, have a follow-up call with Dalia on June 26 and was able to explore and learn even more about Islam. Dalia is one of the most gracious women I have ever met and was so kind to answer all of my questions, including those which must have seemed very naive. Diversity 598 has been the most difficult class thus far in my masters program, as it challenged me to analyze and question every belief or world view I possess and compare it with other’s perspectives and experiences. This class changed my outlook and helped me to see there is such a vast richness of culture to be experienced and appreciated, even in my small community. I loved this class and look forward to exploring and learning more about other cultures, faiths, and belief-systems in years to come.