It was Stephen L. Verch’s first time in the building. He watched the worshipers bow down and rise up from the red carpet in sets. The sky was orange and blue as the sun set against the iconic wall of glass, ascribed with the 99 names of Allah. Some members of the masjid were chatting and joking around in the back. A young man with a hip beard came and gave his buddy a big hug. Verch turned around from observing the worshipers to watching the camaraderie amongst the young men —reminding him of his church. An elderly Jewish neighbor with plastic bags wrapped around her shoes rustled into the sacred space - it was hard for her to bend and take her shoes off, so volunteers made her makeshift shoes covers. Other visitors leaned in to hear the recitation of the Qur'an, feeling divinely inspired.
Verch, an employment lawyer, is a member of the school board in Baltimore county schools and was one of the 200 guests at the interfaith night at the Islamic Society of Baltimore- one of the Mid-Atlantic region’s largest Islamic Centers with more than 3000 congregants. He put his shoes back on and reentered the gymnasium, nodding at Ahmed Mahmood, who was registering guests and handing them preprinted badges to the “Love thy neighbor ”event.
White hydrangeas and ivory candles on the tables set the formal tone for a gathering of neighbors at Mahmood’s childhood masjid, the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
”I was 13 years old in 1969,” said Verch. Richard Nixon was president. That was the year the Islamic Society of Baltimore was established. In 1985 the land was purchased on Johnnycake Road. Verch lives nearby and had not known about the center. He does know the community as he voted for Eid equality in Baltimore County schools. He came today because he was invited, he said, sipping a mini can of Dr. Pepper.
“[The center] is behind lots of trees, so we never ventured in,” shared Susanna who came with her pastor from the Presbyterian Church. It was also her first time in the masjid. The center is open to all on Wednesdays– anyone in the neighborhood can use the basketball courts, grab a bite to eat at the cafeteria and on Sundays get free doctors visits at the health clinic.
Earlier, Dr Edmund Tori, the new president of the center, opened the night with a salutation. Naira, a student as Al Rahmah School recited verses of the Qur'an to open the event. Another young woman read the translation.
Danette Zaghari-Mask, the chair of the program, flitted around the room welcoming and seating each ‘valued guest.’ Many local police officers, council members and elected officials were on her guest list for the "Love Thy Neighbor Dinner", which she calls “a celebration of our diverse interfaith community and community leaders, and a testament of hope for the potential of that community”. Guests included Susan Goering from the American Civil Liberties as well as Colonel Al Jones of the Baltimore Police Department, Baltimore County Sheriff R J Fisher, and Chamber of Commerce CEO Keith Scott. Maryland State delegates Bilal Ali and Charles Syndor and representatives from both Maryland Senators' offices were all in attendance.
“That really resonated with me. This is a historic masjid because President Barack Obama came to speak here last year”, shared an observer, commenting on Zaghari-Mask’s words of welcome.
Guests lined up for a buffet meal, chatting among themselves. Youth from the community served dessert, explaining the origins of the sweet dishes- the baklava, kheer, and even the chocolate cake. Most of the guests were seniors and the inter-generational banter was refreshing.
Elyssa came with her five-year-old and her husband who ‘sometimes’ attends St Mark’s Catholic Church. She was raised Jewish and does join the Baltimore Jewish Congregation from time to time. The couple was interested in an open discussion and found that on their table.
She was inspired by the words of ISB resident scholar Yaseen Sheikh who said in his speech to guests “we need to stop being a pseudo community”. Sheikh Yasin – in his crisp British manner, thanked the audience and asked them if they understood the statement —Love They Neighbor— and reflected over it’s meaning. He quoted the ayah of the Qur'an asking about neighbors and relayed the rights of the neighbors from the Hadith of Gabriel 'alyhis salaam.
He said we pretend to accept people and their diversity, however until we can talk about our differences we cannot become a community. Bringing in the concept of radical hospitality, which requires intentional invitation, he relayed the stories of the Madani helpers, the Ansar.
Love is built on familiarity and trust, he said. For us to bring this realization to our communities, we have to go back to basics,” said Sheikh Yaseen. “We have to see people for their basic humanness.” As he enlightened the visitors, his congregation met the beloved scholar’s words with a heavy heart as he is leaving for his home country, England.
Reverend Dorothy Boulton, Associate Pastor Catonsville Presbyterian Church leads chapel time for 3-4 years old. She spoke of her faith being centered by the love of God, love of each other, referring to her teaching children about the real meaning of love thy neighbor. “To love your neighbor is to care for them in their need. When some are wounded and ill giving them health care, feeding them when they hungry,” she preached. “Count me and all the people of our church to be your neighbor,” ended Reverend Boulton. She led the audience in a version of the song, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’, and then in a version with in ‘her hands’.
Friar Michael Murphy from the St Joseph’s Monastery Parish shared the history of his church. His work with death row prisoners before executions has shaped his vision of what ‘being neighborly’ means.
“I remember walking up the courthouse. I could feel the anger of the victim’s family. They wanted justice for their loved one. The man was mentally ill and the priest was going to go testify for him in court.” He said that sometimes we have to step out our comfort zones to heal.
Rabbi Ruth Smith, Staff Chaplain and University of Maryland Medical Center felt so welcomed. She called the event a first step to becoming a true community.
“Right in the middle of the Torah is the Holiness code,” she shared. The culmination of this chapter is verse 18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” She shared that the word used meant companionship in Hebrew, which to her means that time needs to be spent together to create community.
Mahmood noted that everyone who came in was friendly and interested in learning. “What a beautiful evening,” exclaimed Dr Tori. “To see so many people who already serve our neighborhoods coming together to honor that service was truly beautiful. But what made it more so, was the acknowledgment that we often fall short in this duty. Tonight was a call back to that duty - a call back to the way of the prophets (peace be upon them all) to know, to love and to serve our neighbors,” he commented.
“Inspired by our unique faiths in the Abrahamic tradition, we soulfully harmonized. It is inspiring to be a part of a movement, focused on shared values and aspirations, rather than differences in a political climate that seems to reward divisiveness. I am grateful to be part of a wider community of people who persistently and sincerely love one another,” shared organizer Zaghari-Mask.
The night played the tune of Sheikh Yaseen’s words: diverse cultures can coexist and respect their differences with the thought that every individual has a right to God’s Land.