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Revelations column: Funny thing happened on way home from mosque

Sept. 10, 2010 at 4:10 a.m.

Jennifer Preyss

BY JENNIFER PREYSSA few days ago, I experienced a moment of self-enlightenment that will likely remain with me for a long while.

An unexpected conversation with a local imam and his formerly Catholic, Muslim-convert wife, allowed me an opportunity (that very few Christians take advantage of) to tweak my own presuppositions of Muslims, while emphatically breathing in God's providence.

On Tuesday night, I was invited to the Victoria Islamic Center to observe Muslims celebrating the final days of Ramadan - a month-long period of fasting where Muslims abstain from eating and drinking (and foul behavior, and marital relations . ) from sunrise to sunset, and spend the supplementary hours reading the Quran and praying to God.

It was nearing 8 p.m. when I arrived at the mosque. As I entered the noticeably quiet building, I followed the vibrations of sound to the kitchen. There, I discovered eight men hovering around the center island cutting up fruit and other appetizers to finally break their day-long fasting efforts.

"Is all this food for me?" I asked, laughing.

The men looked up like hungry wolves and said, "You see this knife? Don't mess with a man who hasn't eaten all day," one of the guys said, laughing.

"Ice gloriously broken," I thought.

The mood was light that evening as the men chattered in the kitchen. It reminded me of Christmas Eve, when spirits are high, family is near, delicious smells fill a room and colored twinkling lights seem to make an entire house feel like the safest place on Earth.

So there I was, dressed in an ever-so-slightly, low-cut blue sweater, tight-fitting denim and rain boots. My hair was down and fully exposed, and I'm suddenly aware that I'm already in violation of five of the six clothing requirements for women inside the building. The imam and his wife were more traditionally dressed, each limb appropriately covered, and the wife's hair was wrapped tightly in a scarf. Their shoes were, of course, removed as shoes are strictly prohibited on the carpet.

Even though it was apparent I was the only non-Muslim in the room, and in direct violation of the dress code, my reception at the mosque was utterly warm. I suppose my years of journalism led me to falsely assume they might be slightly bothered by my presence. I was there, after all, as the nosy reporter intruding on their holiday and social time.

"Are you hungry? Grab a plate, help yourself," one man said, grabbing a plate, while another began moving the appetizers a little closer to my lips.

I thanked them and laughed, then declined their offer.

As a native Southerner, I'm used to this method of attack at holiday functions, and, for a moment, I longed for my own mother telling me to "Eat something, Jenny. Move, I'll make you a plate."

The imam announced it was time for prayer, and the men slowly filed into the prayer hall. I took a seat and watched from a distance as the imam led the prayers and position changes.

Even though we're of different faiths, and their supplications were entirely unfamiliar to me - stand up, bend over, squat down, lie prostrate, sit up, repeat - I began contemplating my own prayer life. For the first time in a long while, I considered that I may not be giving enough of myself to the Lord.

There I was observing a room full of people joyfully submitting to a month-long process of worshiping, fasting, praying, loving, giving, thanking and diligently seeking God, and I wondered why I wasn't spending more of my own prayer time lying prostrate before the Lord. Why did their God deserve total physical and spiritual submission and mine didn't? After they finished praying, the imam and his wife sat with me at the table (put a slice of pizza in front of me in case I was hungry) and allowed me to hurl questions at them about Ramadan. Somehow, toward the end of our visit, the conversation shifted effortlessly to love and marriage, and soon the imam's wife was freely chit-chatting about the first time she learned her husband was considering her hand in marriage.

"Y'all are adorable," I said, realizing the imam was now blushing at his blushing bride's anecdote.

About 9:30 p.m., I decided I'd overstayed my welcome, and I should let them get back to enjoying the holiday.

I left the mosque that night with a permanent smile on my face. Would I have had a similar breakthrough about my own religious shortfalls at church or with fellow Christians? Probably not, I decided. As I drove home, I thanked God for being so powerful that he could use anyone and any place to speak to me and draw me nearer to him. I also realized once again, and I suppose it doesn't hurt to be regularly reminded, that the world exists outside of Christian and Western bubbles. Kindness, generosity and friendship, therefore, are universal, and we should take every possible opportunity to purposefully discover one another with the same measure of kindness and hospitality the Victoria Muslims showed me.

Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jpryss@vicad.com.

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