“We need more of this,” says Imene, from Algeria. “The world needs more of this.” And I agreed.
We were sitting at the same table during the Ramadan Iftar celebration at First Parish of Malden, enjoying a meal prepared by the sisters from the Outreach Community & Reform Center (O.C.R.C.), a spiritual home for the local Muslim community in Malden.
The Iftar is the evening meal eaten at sundown during Ramadan. It is the first meal eaten since before sunrise that day by practicing Muslims. This special Iftar, held on June 18, about two weeks into this year’s month-long celebration of Ramadan, was a shared meal with non-Muslims in the community, organized jointly between the O.C.R.C. and First Parish.
“These are delicious,” I said, biting into what looked like a Chinese spring roll, but was filled with chopped beef and some type of cheese. “Oh, I made them,” said Imene. “I find they are always a crowd pleaser.”
We agreed that all the food was delicious, much of it cooked by women from the O.C.R.C., but supplemented by dishes brought, potluck-style, from members of First Parish and their guests.
What I remember most about the evening was the smiles. Everyone was visibly happy to be there. About 50 people attended the event, which began at 8:00 on a Saturday evening, enough time before sundown at 8:45 to mingle and then have a gathering before the meal.
As we gathered together, a woman named Khadija from the O.C.R.C. explained what Ramadan was all about. “Fasting every day from before dawn until after sundown helps us feel a connection to the poor and people who do not have food. It is a way of deepening our spiritual connection with God and allowing us to focus on serving others above ourselves.” Drinking liquids, smoking and engaging in sexual behavior are also prohibited during the daylight hours of Ramadan. It is also a time to engage in increased worship and works of charity.
Amina explained that, during Ramadan, she teaches her children to think about being hungry and what it would be like to not have a good meal to look forward to at the end of a day. “We know we will share a special meal after sundown, but we are also mindful that many people in this world may not have that opportunity.” Before puberty, children are not expected to fast during Ramadan, but some start trying in preparation for later in life. Amina’s 13-year old daughter, who was present at the dinner, was taking part in the fast.
Questions were encouraged from the group. “Why is Ramadan not always at the same time of year?” Amina explained that the dates are calculated based on the lunar year, or the Islamic calendar.
“Is it harder when it falls during summer because the days are longer?” The O.C.R.C. members smiled and laughed. They admitted that some people are happy when Ramadan is in the fall or winter because there are fewer hours to be fasting. But Khadija thoughtfully replied, “Actually, I prefer when it comes in the summer and the days are longer. It makes fasting more difficult and therefore more meaningful. “
Typically, the fast is broken after sundown by eating a date. “Why dates?” someone asked. Amina explained it was the food that broke the fast of the prophet Mohammad. And, she added, that dates are very nutritionally rich and they are a good food with which to replenish the body’s nutrients.
Imam Hamid Buorote from the O.C.R.C. gave the call signaling the end of the day’s fast. Then we all enjoyed the dates together. Before we dug into the array of food laden on the table, it was time for the Muslim evening prayer. The O.C.R.C. folks adjourned to Durgin Hall to pray, inviting anyone who wished to observe to do so. I asked if it was OK to take pictures, and was assured that was fine. As First Parish and friends watched respectfully, the Muslim worshippers repeated the poses of their worship, kneeling and bowing low to the ground. There was some squirming of the younger children during the ritual, a typical sight across all faiths, I thought.
Then it was time for the feast. As Meglena Heydarova, a First Parish member’s guest, said, “The food transported me to another place. The tastes and fragrance of the rice and delicate flavors from around the world put me in touch with another place and culture.” Because Muslims reside in many parts of the world, there was a variety of cultures represented. Chicken cooked tangine-style, a Moroccan red lentil soup called harira, delicate rice dishes, meat-filled turnovers, and Middle Eastern staples such as hummous and tabbouleh were included in the spread.
I sat at a table with Imene and her husband Jubair, the Imam, and some members of First Parish, including the church board president Stacey Gilchrist. I had met the Imam several times before at other community events, but had never had a chance to speak with him at length. I asked about their location, a space they rent in Malden Square, above the former CVS drugstore. He said they are looking for a larger space because they have grown to be a larger congregation. Although, he said somewhat wryly, it’s mainly during Ramadan that the space “feels so tight.” Stacey and I laughed. It’s just like Christmas and Easter in Christian churches.
Then, a woman named Aisha from the O.C.R.C. stood up and gave a reading as people finished their dinners. She smiled nervously and said that she wasn’t used to speaking in public. The reading she chose was from the magazine “The Fountain,” and it was titled “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialog.” Here is an excerpt:
“Interfaith dialogue seeks to realize religion’s basic oneness and unity, and the universality of belief. Religion embraces all beliefs and races in brotherhood, and exalts love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, human rights, peace, brotherhood, and freedom via its Prophets.”
As folks lingered after dinner, the conversations became more topical and intimate. The “elephant in the living room” was the horrific series of terrorist acts in our world that are linked to groups with Islam in the title. “Each time one of these things happen, it is like a stab in the heart,” says Amina, from the O.C.R.C. to myself and two other First Parish guests. We were gathered in an intimate circle, sharing thoughts and feelings from the heart.
“This is not what our religion is about. This is not what we are about. We as Muslims have been affected by these acts of terror. ”
With tears in her eyes, she went on to share that her 11 year-old son comes home from school with all these questions. He hears what happens in the news and he asks what it has to do with his religion. “I have to explain to him that it is not our religion that is doing these acts.”
Eden Garhart-Smith shared that she wished there were more of these events where we had a chance to get to know each other. “I really appreciated being able to ask questions and to be honest about things that I just don’t know. I liked being able to watch the prayers right in the same room and to see that it’s just a different way of praying. It is only when we get to really know each other that we can understand things better.”
First Parish, which is a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and the O.C.R.C. have had a history of outreach and connection between their congregations, going back to the ministry of Rev. David Horst almost a decade ago. When Reverend Horst left, the connection was not nurtured for a number of years. Casey Lutz, a First Parish member, has worked to rekindle that connection. Over the past couple of years, she has reached out to the Sisters Committee of the Islamic center. Members of the O.C.R.C. have attended a First Parish Sunday worship service and they have given an Islam 101 workshop at First Parish.
Rev. Wendy Bell, the current interim minister at First Parish, states: “I am delighted that we have had the opportunity to do these events and connect with the Muslim community right here in our neighborhood. Especially in this atmosphere that we are all living in, there’s nothing better we can do than to build these relationships and to break down barriers between people.”
Anne D’Urso-Rose is the Associate Director of MATV, a Neighborhood View journalist, a Unitarian Universalist and is soon to become a member of First Parish of Malden.
See a related Neighborhood View post: a video interview and podcast with local resident Souad Akib on “Inside Malden: Ideas and Stories that Inspire” produced and hosted by Ose Schwab.