It was quite something, all of those beautiful, colorful prayer rugs strewn about the floor in the east transept of the National Cathedral recently. They looked as if they belonged there, picking up the dazzling hues from the sun streaming through the stained glass windows. The sounds, too, were lovely, especially the haunting invocation — Allaaahhhh — echoing between the massive stone columns from the imam who conducted the first Muslim worship service (Jumuah) at the National Cathedral.
It was stunning to see the several hundred or so Muslims who attended, shoeless, on their knees, bent over, bowing at the Friday call to prayer. It all just seemed so right, this welcoming from what is, after all, our National Cathedral. People praying for peace. What could be better than that?
Ah, but the pushback. When the story first broke in the Washington Post that the first Muslim service would be held at the Cathedral, the crazies came out in full force. Calls, letters, emails, threats. How dare the Cathedral open its doors to these people?
Because of the protests, the Cathedral tightened its security. Bags were checked; it was closed to the public.
Yet, as the South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool began his sermon (Khutba), a well dressed blonde, Christine Weick, 50, from Michigan, emerged from the crowd, shouting, “Jesus Christ died on that cross! He is the reason we are to worship only Him! Jesus is our Lord and Savior!” Several people came and escorted her out as she continued her rant: “We have built . . . allowed you your mosques in this country! Why don’t you worship in your mosques and leave our churches alone? We are a country founded on Christian principles!”
When you live with this kind of bigotry every day, it takes more to faze you than one deranged woman.
Ambassador Rasool barely batted an eye. He kept right on with his sermon as if nothing had happened, as did the worshippers. When you live with this kind of bigotry every day, it takes more to faze you than one deranged woman.
Interspersed with quotes from the Qu’ran, Rasool gave an impassioned rebuke to “extremists from the house of Islam who appropriate our religion, our language and symbols.” He went on to say, “This is not the time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. . . . They invade lands, behead journalists, execute civilians and declare war on anyone different to them.” He could not have been more sympathetic or conciliatory to Christians, even saying, “We are here to say that the danger and insecurity faced by Christians and other minority religions in the Middle East cannot be tolerated.”
This was not good enough for the likes of Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham. “It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible who sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to save us from our sins,” said Graham on his Facebook account.
Conservative columnist Diana West, in a screed against the service said, “The Episcopal Church blindly, blithely thinks the Cathedral’s Islamic service ‘demonstrates an appreciation of one another’s prayer tradition.’”
But the dean of the Cathedral, Rev. Gary Hall spoke that day of St. Benedict who, in teaching a life of prayer and hospitality, believed Christianity was pragmatic, not ideological. And he referred to the Muslim prayers as “a beautiful and sacred language in a beautiful and sacred space.”
Having the Muslim service in the Cathedral “was a no brainer for me” Hall said, and he was surprised at the backlash. He said the Cathedral switchboard had never seen anything like it — even worse than when he declared his approval of same sex weddings and gun control. “It seems there was an orchestrated evangelical response,” he said. “We had hundreds of angry phone calls. They called me an infidel and a blasphemer. I considered it a badge of honor, like being on Nixon’s enemies list.”
Though the service was seen as pretty radical in some quarters, that’s not what Hall intended. “I thought it would be a comfort food thing,” he said. “Not a stick in the eye.”
Hall believes it is important to continue these prayer services and to keep educating the public about Islam. He thinks the sound and the space was worth the whole thing. “It was a transcendental moment,” he said. They did get plenty of positive feedback, including from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Rasool says that the service was also praised in his home country. But he has had negative feedback here, mostly from Christians. As for Muslim leaders around the world, he says “there has been no response from officialdom.” Rasool finds it “embarrassing and extremely painful that we cannot get our heartland to be as generous to Christians and Jews,” but he says the Muslim extremists have also been surprisingly quiet. “They do not know how to respond to the sermon, because where I could, I quoted the Qu’ran. They have been a lot more muted than has been some of the Christian feedback.”
Rasool’s new goal is to have Christian worship services at a mosque. “We could do what the Prophet of Islam did,” he says, “allowing Christians to pray in his mosque while he was there.” He knows that won’t be easy, but he’d like to establish the same “comfort zone” in the mosque that was established at the Cathedral.
Shouldn’t something be sacred because you believe it to be? And if you believe it to be, how can anyone take that away from you?
While we spoke of the controversy, Hall mentioned to me that “people are funny about sacred space.” That’s putting it mildly. But as I thought about this piece, I wondered, What exactly is a sacred space?
Most of us think of places of worship as sacred spaces. That goes without saying. But also, ever since the time of cavemen, people have had sacred spaces — spaces made sacred by the beliefs that people have in them.
For the Muslims who prayed at the National Cathedral that Friday, the Cathedral was a sacred space. But it was also a Christian sacred space, and there have been Jewish rituals there too. As an Army brat, I know that the military has non-denominational chapels where people of different faiths pray at different times. Those people can turn those spaces into their own idea of what is sacred.
I have a place on the water in Southern Maryland where there was once an Indian village. I built a labyrinth on what the local archeologists told me was Indian sacred ground. When I walk up to that space, I sometimes feel it is almost vibrating with spirituality. Other people get nothing from it. Is a sacred space sacred before it is consecrated, or only afterwards? If it is destroyed, is the land sacred? Is a mountaintop sacred? The ocean?
I feel my dining room table, lit with candles, filled with guests and good food and good wine is sacred. Shouldn’t something be sacred because you believe it to be? And if you believe it to be, how can anyone take that away from you?
That is why I’m so baffled at those who would take offense — rather than be honored — that others could see the sacred in their space. What is sacred space to you? Why not invite others into it, and show them some hospitality?
Image courtesy of Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com.