I arrived at the mosque that also traced its origins to the Nation of Islam’s Mosque 48.
It looked to me as if it had once been a single-story house with a big yard. Downtown had swallowed it up and spit it out. Now the yard was a concrete parking lot and the house had been transformed with additions and a paint job of vaguely Arabian scroll-work. A high iron fence ran the entire perimeter of the property distinguishing it from the empty lots and boarded up storefronts.
I parked on the street and put my headscarf in place. Sitting in the car with the engine off, I realized how anxious I felt. Throughout this entire journey from Christianity to Islam, I never set out for a place of worship without experiencing nervousness in my belly. Some of it was due to the logistics: locating the right building, getting myself through the proper entrance, and finding a suitable seat—all without inadvertently offending anyone and, ideally, maintaining a modicum of dignity. The bigger part of my uneasiness had to do with the fear of feeling like an outsider. I worried I wouldn’t be welcome—or, worse, treated with contempt.
Today’s anxiety had been higher than normal from the get-go. I started to feel it even before I left Grandma’s apartment. It’s hard enough when what you think makes you suspicious is invisible but quite another when your body is wrapped in it. In fact, by the time I was ready to exit the car, I realized the sensations in my chest were bordering on full-blown panic. I closed my eyes and took several lung-busting deep breaths.
I walked around the building and through the first door I saw. It was ajar and led to a little hallway that dead-ended into a bulletin board crowded with notices. From there, I could have gone left or I could have gone right. Doors hung in every direction; I felt like a contestant on a game show whose prize hinges on the knob she turns. I heard men’s voices coming from one of the options. I didn’t have the courage to pick any of them. I busied myself reading the announcements.
A man came from around the corner and paused when he saw me. He wore a white-cotton tunic with matching pants and skull cap. His attire looked exotic against his black skin, but something about the way it came together was uniquely American.
“Can I help you?” he asked, smiling. His pretty teeth matched his outfit.
“I’m here for Jummah,” I said.
His warm demeanor gave me a boost of confidence. I explained I wasn’t Muslim but that I was learning about Islam.
I followed him to one of the doors. “The sanctuary’s in here,” he said, pointing. The room was large by private residence standards but modest for a communal gathering space. He pointed to the back, “That’s where the sisters sit. You should go in because it starts soon, but feel free to ask me any questions at the end.” Slipping off my shoes and tucking them on a shelf by the door, I thanked him.
Several men were sitting at the front of the room and a few women were at the back. The people were oriented at a diagonal—proof that the grid of the city doesn’t always align to the spiritual. I took my place among the ladies. This was the first I had ever sat in the same room as men during prayer, and I wondered if it would be distracting. One of the men stood and did the call to prayer. There was no niche in the wall at the front like in most mosques, so he cupped his hands and sang the words against his palms, helping the sound fill the room. I suppose I had heard this ritual done before, but hadn’t fully realized what it was because I was always in a different room. As men and women continued to arrive, I let the feel of the sturdy floor beneath me ease the remnants of anxiety that still tingled in my limbs.