The group had just witnessed history, right in the middle of their neighborhood.
On September 13, 2009, the Gwynn Oak Muslim community broke ground for the first ever masjid to be built from the ground up in Baltimore City.
With shovels in hand and donning hard hats – symbolic for the years of effort put forth navigating city bureaucracy and building ordinances – founder Yahya Cason, community Amir Presley Cason, Board Member Melvin Bilal, and neighborhood association President Mrs. Mercedes Eugene pressed their feet down, at once driving their spades into the dirt, and erecting a new permanence to the Muslim presence in Gwynn Oak.
The ceremonial digging – two bulldozers were already parked on the grassy lot at the corner of Gywnn Oak and Belle Avenues at the periphery of Baltimore City – came after a line up of speakers and Baltimore notables. Board member Melvin Bilal served as the master of ceremonies to a crowd of Muslims and non-Muslims from the neighborhood. Dozens of residents stood off the site, leaning on the iron fence listening to the speeches.
“In this community, we were asking Muslims to move here and occupy houses that otherwise would have been [left] in a denigrated state. So in this sense, it was a mutual benefit … to the Muslims they could [form] a community, and the the broader [residents], they benefited from a group of people who made a concerted effort to bring up the standard of living,” founder Yahya Cason said of the motivations that eventually led to around 70 Muslim families moving into the Gwynn Oak neighborhood.
Housing prices went from $30,000-$40,000 to about $250,000 since Muslims started moving into the area in the late 1990s, said Cason. Almost 400 Muslims live in the Gwynn Oak neighborhood.
“After saying [the testimony of faith], the next thing is we have to establish the salah. So that’s what we are doing,” said President Presley Cason, explaining the purpose of the masjid to non-Muslim neighbors. Presley Cason is the nephew of Yahya Cason.
Earlier this year, the house which served as the community masjid since the community project began was demolished. The city declared it “condemned” last year and community leaders said it would be too costly to repair and maintain the structure over the long term. A three story masjid with a media center, a commercial kitchen, and a youth center will be erected on the property insha’Allah. Next door is the Muslimat An-Nisaa shelter for homeless women. “[The activity from] the five times a day prayer at the masjid is the best protection for the women in the shelter,” said Sister Asma Hanif of Muslimat An-Nisaa, watching the ceremony from the shelter portico.
Also present was a non-Muslim supporter and neighbor who serves as president of the neighborhood council. “[If] we have some problem people to the community, she can handle any of them. She is a true friend of the community,” said Melvin Bilal of Mrs. Mercedes Eugene.
Addressing the gathering, Mrs. Eugene emphasized how important the Muslims were to the neighborhood.
“I remember what was in this area before you all moved in here. I love to watch your children play. I love to hear them speak. I love to watch them interact with adults with the honor and respect they give and it sets an example. I’m honored to be here, to be among you, to be a part of you, and to fight to have you be a part of us,” she told the audience.
Representatives from other masajid in Baltimore City made remarks in support of the Gwynn Oak masjid building effort, many of them expressing support for a city wide Eid prayer.
Imam Hassan Amin, who moved to Gwynn Oak in 2002, said “nothing like this exists on this scale in the country.” Anyone who wants to move in is welcome, said Amin.
Young men walked through the crowds, collecting donations and passing around pledge envelopes from an upside down hard hat.
As dusk came in, the call to prayer filled the summer air. The Muslims of Gwynn Oak prayed under the sky. An iftar dinner followed. With tables and chairs strewn across a lawn across the street from the masjid site, it looked like a large family picnic. Several cars passed by and gave a friendly honk: “Welcome to the neighborhood”.