“On Connecting and Community”
By Zehra Naqvi
Growing up, when my parents mentioned that we would be headed to the imambargah (Shia house of worship), my siblings and I held our breath waiting to hear which one they were referring to. There were a couple of local centers in Queens, New York, but the three of us preferred the one that was farthest away, in Englewood, New Jersey: Mehfile Shahe Khorasan (“MSK”). There was something special and welcoming about MSK. I spent enough time there to have learned every hall, every nook and cranny, where certain cliques tended to sit, and the members of different cliques across every age group. I know that center inside and out and I know and care for its people. And they know me and care for me.
Members of this community have advocated for me, inspired me, and shown me kindness the likes of which I could not have imagined. While many scoffed at the idea of me going away for college, some managed to convince my parents otherwise, seeing my potential and persuading my parents that I should not be held back. They saw us through my father’s illness and passing and they became my first role models – professional and personal, males and females. This is the community that saw my family through good times and bad, as we have done for them. Births, deaths, illnesses, marriages, divorces, scandals…all of it. This community is very much responsible for shaping who I’ve become. These are people who have always been invested in me, and continued to be so despite my very long absence.
I’m someone who has spent much of my life trying to get to the next goal, to the next place, to beyond where I am, and who I am at that moment to where I’m supposed to end up and who I’m supposed to become. Generally, this meant getting away literally as well, my journey taking me across multiple states, before circling all the way back to New York again a decade later.
While I was away, I would often think back to my community, particularly as I visited other centers. I missed the people and I missed the feeling of connecting with them. But when I came back, I found the experience to be different at the center, perhaps as a result of a shift in my own perspective. In my daily life, I am a Muslim American lawyer, outgoing, and outspoken. But I head to the mosque and suddenly I’m in a segregated space, behind walls and curtains, separated from half the community and the speaker, without a means of interaction, and listening to sermons that generally don’t connect to my everyday life. All I was getting from the center was an opportunity to socialize, but no real spiritual guidance and no chance to really reconcile my life inside and outside the mosque. I found myself thinking I could have watched this programming online from home and gotten as much (or as little) out of it.
Recently, however, there was a push to incorporate more English programming at the center. And during those sessions, because there were so few people initially, men and women sat in the same space for the session. I was thrilled to have direct access to the speaker, to have the opportunity to interact with the speaker in the Q&A session, to simply experience the sermon in person, alongside everyone else and have a speaker discussing modern situations that were actually applicable to my everyday life. It’s very different than watching an Urdu sermon unrelated to my life via a screen in the upstairs space reserved for women. I felt engaged and fortunate to be experiencing something meaningful with my community as a whole. It was lovely to see entire families in one space. It felt like my everyday life and my community life finally aligned, albeit briefly.
Not everyone welcomed the changes, but the changes are happening nonetheless, as they should, for sake of the audience in that room that should matter most to all of us – the next generation. As with most centers, I do not deny that there are issues of gender access, participation, and leadership, but I have faith in my community — the people in it, the people leading it, and the center that is its home. The center and its members have watched me evolve into who I am today. They have been patient with my journey and so now it’s my turn to patiently wait and watch the community and the center inshAllah evolve and reach beyond what it is to what it can one day become. It has recently expanded its doors and halls to accommodate more people, and I have faith that it will also continue to embrace internal changes that will allow more of us to feel connected to the center, to each other, and to its programming.