The Pentagon Chapel

One of the Pentagon Chaplain’s deputies (my second escort of the day) came in and said it was time for both of us to head to the chapel. On our way across the hall, the Chaplain explained that we were joining a group of European visitors. These were government administrators from various countries who were attending a conference in D.C.; they had signed up for a visit to the Pentagon Chapel. Some of them were Muslim, so the official in charge of Islamic services would be joining to conduct a little question-and-answer session, which would lead directly into Jummah prayers for those who wished to stay.

At long last, and in fewer than 10 steps, I was standing inside the chapel. In some ways, it was an exceptionally ordinary space. The size of perhaps three private offices combined and opened into one big area, it retained elements true to its original use like industrial-looking carpet and a drop ceiling covered in generic-grade tiles. Five stained glass panels offered the only obvious sign of the room’s function. All of them had images that spoke to me of patriotism and strength: eagles, American flags, sun beams, stars. Four served in place of windows, but the fifth was at the front above where an altar might go. The only one with words, it read: United in Memory September 11, 2001.

I joined the 15 or so individuals already seated. The Chaplain and Muslim leader greeted each other jovially and then teamed up to answer questions about the chapel’s construction and uses; I studied the room. All the furniture was moveable to accommodate different needs. The Chaplain and I had entered from the hall, but I noticed a more formal entrance at the back, where a glass door led to something like a foyer and, beyond that, doors to the outside. This must provide easy access for guests invited to the chapel for special functions such as weddings or memorials; during certain hours, it also allowed visitors who just wanted to see the chapel to have a peek.

I looked at those words: United in Memory. I thought about the oft-used motto, “United We Stand.” The unity to which these phrases refer suddenly struck me as so narrow. They implied unity against an enemy such as another country or group of people. The common denominator among every religion I had explored was this: the mindset of an all-encompassing unity, all of creation connected. I wondered if humans were capable of forming much broader alliances—uniting, perhaps, against truly universal enemies such as poverty, hunger, illness, greed, hate, and shame.

After the question-and-answer session, it was time for Jummah. The Muslim leader invited me to participate. Within a few minutes, the chairs at the front of the room had been moved and carpets spread on the ground. The chapel was transformed into a little mosque. I fetched my headscarf from my bag. A couple of the men from the European contingent stayed, and more people joined. Most were middle-aged, middle-management types, but some stood out: a young guy in fatigues, an older man whose blue bib suggested cafeteria work, a young woman in hijab. The orientation had shifted: not only were we on the floor but we were no longer looking toward the front of the room. The other woman and I had our backs against the outer wall of stained-glass panels. The men were only a few feet in front of us. We were all facing the interior of the building.

For months I had imagined doing Jummah prayers here; now I was doing them. It was a dream come true. I thought about what a long and demanding road this project to explore religion had been. I thought how religion should help heal and unite but, often, is used to hurt and destroy. I thought about the individuals who had died here. I thought about people all around the world killed because of war. As I bent to place my forehead on the floor, my tears dropped on the carpet. I let them fall because it seemed appropriate to leave some tears here.

At the end, everyone was invited to say a few words to the group. When it was my time to speak, I thanked them for allowing me, a non-Muslim, to join today. “I lived in D.C. at the time of 9/11,” I told them. “Being here today felt….” A sob caught in my throat and I didn’t think I could finish. Quickly, I managed, “…really good. Thank you.”

As we stood to leave, the old man in the blue worker’s bib approached me. I thought he might say something. I recognized the look in his eyes: a mixture of sadness and joy that needs no translation. He raised his hand and, without a word, I knew what was being asked. He wanted connection, but was unsure how. I looked at the floor, giving him access to the top of head. He pressed his open palm to my crown. I suppose what he offered was a blessing or healing of sorts; a gesture of love and gratitude, equally. Unspoken, it said everything.

The Chaplain

Back at the Office of the Chaplain, as I waited, I was still thinking about what the priest had said. It struck me as radical: the idea that faith leaders would cater to the spiritual needs of people regardless of religious affiliation. Chaplains in the military are working with young people whose job description includes not just an ability to kill, but a willingness to die. In the task of war, the differences that exist within the group become secondary to the goal of defeating a common enemy. These factors create an atmosphere in which inter-faith cooperation seems to thrive—but it’s unity forged in the context of a greater disunity.

The Pentagon Chaplain announced that he was free to meet. I sat opposite him in his office. Out in the waiting area, his mood had seemed jovial and light. Now a storm cloud had rolled in. Even his posture looked to be curving in as if he were a kid about to be punished. He appeared unhappy enough that I considered telling him we didn’t have to do this. I hadn’t expected a private conversation. I was still amazed I made it through the front door. I had gotten so much, now all I really wanted was to see the chapel.

Neither of us spoke for a moment and then he apologized. He explained that writers made him nervous. Since the chapel’s official dedication, journalists had come in to do stories that, when printed, never failed to generate a firestorm of criticism. Always, representatives from the general public were outraged that Muslims were allowed to worship in that space. Or someone else was fuming because their particular  denomination didn’t appear to have its own seat at the table. Or another person thought the entire endeavor was a joke and a travesty.

I tried to assure him that I wasn’t THAT kind of writer. I wasn’t a reporter, and the story I was working on wasn’t exactly journalism—it was personal, more like memoir. At the very least, whatever I was writing was unlikely to appear online in some national news publication with an open-access comments section. I told him I sympathized: those comments can be brutal.

He said part of the problem was that people didn’t understand the logistics of how faith groups came to worship in the chapel. It wasn’t determined by him—or any other Pentagon official, for that matter. The groups are formed by Pentagon employees, and not just military personnel. Anyone who works in the building is eligible: secretaries, cashiers, janitors. Islamic prayers are held in the chapel not for the purpose of making a political or social statement, whatever it might be, but because the Pentagon has Muslim employees who have the same rights as every other employee. Groups that hold weekly prayer services also include Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Episcopal, Hindu, and Jewish. And those are just the ones that gather in the chapel. Other faith groups meet throughout the building. To be given permission to form, the members must agree to certain ground rules. They cannot speak ill of any other faith or faith group, even in private. They sign a contract agreeing to this. Once a year, all the groups are asked to come together to participate in a multi-faith service.

The Chaplain’s demeanor had changed completely—he was back to being relaxed and friendly. He seemed to be thinking out loud: yes, the problem was also one of perception. The chapel had been designed as a space to serve Pentagon employees and, technically, that’s how it operated but this did not account for its symbolic function. The violent events that took place to create the chapel had been a very traumatizing, public experience. The plane crashed into the building at that exact spot. For this reason, people have a sense that the space itself, and all that takes place within it, belongs to everyone.

All Saints

Inside the Pentagon, we finally arrived at the Office of the Chaplain directly across the hall from the Pentagon Chapel. My escort introduced me to the head chaplain, a friendly Protestant minister, whose job is to oversee the spiritual needs of Pentagon employees. Each branch of the military also has a head chaplain who leads a squadron of chaplains that provide spiritual guidance to troops in the field. One of the deputies from the Chaplain’s office agreed to take charge of me, so my original escort handed responsibility for me over and said he’d come back later. I thanked him and bade him farewell.

My new escort asked if I was ready. I didn’t know for what—but I said I was. We set off again, walking briskly up and down more hallways. As we went, he explained that today’s Catholic service would be especially large and would take place in an auditorium, not the chapel. I tried to hide my disappointment. I thought wouldn’t that be something to have made it this far and fail to even lay eyes on the Pentagon Chapel.

By the time we got to the auditorium, almost every seat was filled. The Pentagon is said to have roughly 30,000 employees; several hundred had come to honor the individuals throughout history who, according to the Catholic Church, represent the highest embodiment of the Christian faith. The front of the room was transformed into a make-shift altar: a priest in robes, candles, a table set with a chalice. This space was not really a church and the people present weren’t congregants in the traditional sense—presumably they were tithe-paying members elsewhere—yet it was as authentic a place of worship as any I had visited. I marveled at the distance I had come that elements of the ceremony could feel familiar to me: calls and responses, readings from the Bible, communion. I remember agonizing in the beginning over whether to partake in the sacrament. Today, I didn’t hesitate. I believed I could approach it with the understanding and intention it deserved. I had earned my stripes.

The service concluded and my escort introduced me to the priest. A fresh haircut made him look as bare as a new recruit. He agreed to speak with me and my escort gave him the job of returning me to the office; I was a baton in a chaplain relay.

We sat in the now-empty auditorium and he told me about his years ministering on the front lines in the Middle East. He explained that “ministering” in the military was not necessarily what it sounded like. His job wasn’t to preach his beliefs to soldiers, but to support their spiritual needs regardless of their religious identifications. Within every large group of soldiers, a spectrum of affiliations might be represented including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists—not to mention the variations within those categories. Given certain constraints—particularly those in war—only one chaplain may be available for all those soldiers. So the situation is likely to arise that a Christian chaplain will make sure that Jewish soldiers have the necessary accommodations to celebrate Passover or that Buddhists soldiers have time to meditate or that Muslim soldiers are given a chance to perform daily prayers or that an Atheist soldier be permitted to avoid it all. In one particularly memorable instance, the Catholic priest explained, he had even ministered to a soldier who identified as Wiccan.

The Pentagon

In the months of communicating with various individuals within the Department of Defense, a specific mental picture had taken shape in my imagination: it was of me participating in Jummah prayers at the Pentagon Chapel. I couldn’t shake the thought, even as I recognized that almost nothing in this journey had played out as I envisioned it. Instead, some variation or twist I hadn’t seen coming unfolded, and I would come to accept the discrepancy even when it struck me initially as a disappoint—like in the very beginning when I ordered my tome on Martin Luther, only to receive a children’s book. I had learned to maintain as light a grip on my expectations as possible. But this particular hope—that I could perform Jummah at the Pentagon—refused to be dismissed. For this reason, I feared a dramatic deviation. I thought even if I managed to get through security and my escort showed up, then something else would go wrong: services would be cancelled or, if not that, I wouldn’t be invited to witness them much less participate.

Cautiously optimistic, if a little nervous, I approached the first check point at the Pentagon. The man scrutinized my IDs and then turned his laser focus on me. He asked the purpose of my visit. I explained and he let me through. I waited again for the next probe—this one by x-ray machine. Once again I passed muster. I was permitted to leave the little security building and make my way through the entrance to the actual Pentagon. Just beyond the doors, I came to a large waiting area that had yet another counter, this one offering the final clearance once a visitor had been united with his or her escort. My contact had explained that he would meet me here.

I joined dozens of other individuals sitting in the chairs provided. I thought, perhaps, this was as far as I would make it; in fact, I was surprised to have made it this far. I took in all the details. The people waiting appeared to be others like me with meetings or perhaps some were family members of an employee who had come for lunch or an event. We sat adjacent to a small gift shop. Some of the items on sale included Pentagon-shaped refrigerator magnets and ball caps with military logos and pink camouflage t-shirts for the ladies. The mood in the room felt light, almost festive. I had to remind myself I was standing in what was probably the planet’s most powerful killing command center. Lest anyone forget, a huge emblem on the wall reminded us of our location.

I was genuinely shocked when my Pentagon escort showed up not just on time but several minutes early. He was a smiley guy who laughed between sentences. We made our way to the last counter. He vouched for me and they took my picture for a computer-printed badge that I attached to the collar of my jacket. We went through one last checkpoint and then I was officially inside.

We began to walk and only then did I get a first-hand sense of the enormity of the Pentagon. We walked up corridors lined with offices and down corridors lined with offices. We strode passed cafeterias, a drug store, and even a florist. We came to a big open atrium that was like a busy intersection with pedestrians going this way and that. We kept going. Even when I thought our destination must be just around the corner, we had further still to go. Now I saw that an escort was not just a security precaution, but a navigational necessity.

Clearance

When I was almost finished with the Dallas portion of my trip, my email request to the Pentagon was still traveling in circles. I tried to imagine what being denied access to the Pentagon was meant to teach me. Certainly, it was a powerful statement about religion and war. I understood that many people use religion as a means to create divisions between themselves and others, but I had come to see that the absence of such divisions was the one truth to which each religion pointed. The very notion of an “us versus them”—of enemies—is unity’s opposite. What could be more emblematic of enemies than the Pentagon? As if to confirm this point, the building itself would not open to my inquiries. Maybe I would go, shake my fist at the Pentagon, and be done with it.

I was reaching a place of gratitude for being given this powerful message when the email arrived: I had been granted clearance to visit the Pentagon Chapel.

The person who contacted me with news that my request had been approved was a military spokesman who said he would be my escort. We settled on my first Friday in D.C. as the ideal date. He said that would allow me to sit in for a Catholic service in honor of All Saint’s Day and the afternoon Islamic Jummah Prayers. He told me to allow an extra hour to make my way through security.

In all my years of using the Metro system when I lived and worked in D.C., I had never once disembarked at the Pentagon. On several occasions, I passed that station and went on to the Pentagon City stop, which leads to a shopping mall. But the Pentagon stop had only the military complex above it with nothing but parking lots and freeways beyond. There was no draw for anyone not associated with armed forces. When I was riding that line, I always wondered about the passengers who got off there, many of whom wore crisp military uniforms. Perhaps they had just flown in from front lines or lonely outposts to make reports to higher-ups. Their fresh-scrubbed facades seemed to invite speculation. What sorrows sights did those stern expressions conceal?

Now I was joining them. As I exited the subway train, I could sense fellow passengers wondering about me. What was I doing getting off here? I was not dressed the part: neither military nor typical Washington business attire. I had debated whether to revert to my old pantsuit style for the occasion, but decided against it. I had entered a new chapter, so I opted for clothes appropriate to the present. I dressed as I had for the more traditional religious services on this journey, with a patterned skirt to my ankles and a long sleeve jacket. I was at once too conservative and too casual to fit in.

The Metro exit deposited me above ground just feet from one of the Pentagon’s outer walls, too close to gain a sense of the building’s size or shape. From this perspective, it looked like any other government building: pale stone adorned with decorative flourishes. I followed signs for visitors, which led to a small structure near one of the main entrances. Inside, a line snaked back and forth, feeding into various checkpoints.

Even as I inched forward with everyone else, I maintained my doubts. I was convinced something would go wrong. I worried that the forms of identification I brought would prove insufficient or my spokesman/escort would fail to meet me.

First Eid celebration

In the main room of the convention center, I selected the swath of cardboard directly behind the men, as close to the front of the room as I could get. I slipped off my shoes, tucked them into the plastic bag, and stepped over the tape. I settled on a spot that gave me a wide berth of personal space.

People entered in a steady stream as I waited. They greeted one another with kisses and took photos together on their phones. I scooted this way and that to accommodate new arrivals. Soon I had nowhere else to go as the women and children crowded in around me. I came face-to-face with a chubby baby in a hijab. I had only ever seen kids at mosques wearing western-style clothes, and here was a little girl still wobbly on her feet in a special tiny head scarf. I have no idea why dressing tots in grownup clothes has such universal appeal, but my heart melted at the sight of her.

The sermon began. It was about how Allah brings individuals together, how humanity is drawing closer. As if to demonstrate the point, waves of people kept walking through the doors. At some point, I raised my head high enough to see past my nearest neighbors and found that the room was nearly full. The women’s side was vibrant with color and style. It included everything from African queens in elaborately folded fabric hats to Persian princesses in sky-high heels; from loose robes to form-fitting designer suits. A covered head was the only common denominator in terms of appearance—and even in this the crowd sported a vast range of styles

The imam was saying that as we gather today, those of us in this room with others in this country and around the world, we must feel our connection also with everyone who suffers. As he implored us to feel others’ need as our own, audience members were passing big plastic boxes for collecting zakat. By the time one reached me, it had a mound of bills. I stuffed in a few more dollars before handing it on.

Then it was time for prayer. It took a few moments for us to properly situate ourselves so that our shoulders and arms were in contact. A thousand little whispers and adjustments blended into a sizable drone. When agreement was reached, we began. It was the same series of rakahs I had grown accustomed to performing at mosques, only here I was doing them in a crowd much larger than anything I had ever anticipated. It was like I had been learning dance steps in a small classroom for months, and now I was performing them in public as part of a giant flash mob. As a single body, we bowed and kneeled and pressed our foreheads to the ground.

The sheer scale of our synchronized movements made me think of the pictures I had seen of the Hajj. They show thousands and thousands of pilgrims wearing the simple garments that erase socioeconomic distinctions. The people walk in circles around the Kaaba, that small structure in Mecca that symbolizes the enormity of an idea: with one God, we are one. Every prayer in Islam is a return to this notion, just as Eid al-Adha is a return to the well from which its shared history flows.

The invitation

I was sitting on the flimsy mattress folded out from the loveseat in Grandma’s extra room when my cell phone rang. It was a local number I didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Corinna?” It was a man’s voice.

“Yes?” I replied.

“It’s Raj!”

It was the older gentleman to whom I had given my cell phone number at the first Texas mosque. I pictured his handlebar mustache.

His enthusiasm was contagious. “Raj!” I cried back.

He explained that he was calling on behalf of his family. They would like to invite me to their Eid festivities, which were approaching. They planned to attend the special service at the mosque Wednesday morning and afterwards gather at his daughter’s home for a meal. Would I like to meet them at the mosque and then caravan back to their place? I told him that sounded excellent.

I had also learned of another Eid celebration, this one arranged by the North Texas Islamic Association, which would be held at the Dallas Convention Center the day before I met Raj and his family. I hadn’t observed the Eid Al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan that honors the last day of fasting. Now I would celebrate double.

When I made my plans to travel to Dallas, I hadn’t realized the significance of the Eid Al-Adha. I had seen it on my calendar—it was obviously big enough to make it on my mass-produced At-A-Glance Monthly Planner—but I didn’t realize that it is arguably the most important date of the year for Muslims. That it coincided with my trip was either dumb luck or the hand of Allah.

Aside from the two Eids, Islam has only one other major holiday: Muhammad’s birthday—though if and when to observe it is not universally agreed upon. Some Muslims opt not to celebrate it, believing its recognition implies a level of devotion that threatens the basic monotheism of the faith. Among those who observe the holiday, there’s disagreement about which day to honor. Sunnis generally recognize one date while Shiites tend to prefer a time several days later. With the Eids, it’s different. Everyone gets on the same page—though festivities still might not coincide exactly, most are within a few hours depending on what country’s clock celebrants are observing.

Eid al-Adha is all about the unity of people—and not just of Muslims with one another. It commemorates an incident that appears in the Jewish Torah and Christian Old Testament: when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Only in the Quran, the boy is Abrahams’ son Ishmael (whose mother is Hager) instead of Isaac (whose mother is Sarah). In both cases, God stops Abraham just before carrying out the act and lets him kill a ram instead. Muslims believe that their ancestry can be traced back to Abraham through Ishmael, binding them with Jews and Christians who both claim this patriarch. Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, memorializes the common root of the three major monotheistic faiths. The holiday also coincides with the end of the Hajj, so that as the pilgrims gather en mass in Mecca, Muslims are gathering all over the world with them.

As I approached the convention center by car, I could see a few police officers stationed at various pedestrian entrances. I had been conditioned by my time in post-9/11 D.C. to expect heavy security at busy gatherings, especially those involving what might be considered a “hot-button” topic. I thought about the annual Pre-tribulation Conference held in a Dallas hotel not far from here and the damage that could be done by one crazed fundamentalist bent on hastening the onset of the rapture. But this show of force didn’t appear to be anything more than what you might expect to see for simple crowd control at a Bon Jovi concert. I wondered if decisions regarding safety measures were dependent on who might be the target of attacks.