In eighth-grade history class, the students learn of pilgrims making a treacherous journey across the Atlantic to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom. These same principles of religious freedom and tolerance are equally important today.
At an interfaith dinner hosted by the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts, I met Imam Wissam Baki. His hospitality, along with the warm openness of Zahra, a member of the congregation, inspired me to bring the eighth-grade students on a field trip to the mosque. This invitation seemed a timely opportunity in light of the “Islamophobia” prevalent today, fueled by media portrayals of Muslims that focus on an extremist minority. These portrayals, of course, do not represent the views of countless peaceful Muslims living in the U.S. and around the world.
I saw the field trip as one little step toward world peace. Here are some of the students’ reflections. —Ann Sagarin
“I was curious to know what the Islamic faith is like because I really don’t know much about this religion at all. For a field trip Mrs. Sagarin drove the class to the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts in Springfield, Massachusetts…My surroundings amazed me, for here in the heart of West Springfield, was a thriving Muslim community.”
“It was different than I had expected because I thought it was just going to be a mosque, but when we arrived I realized that there was also a school… Everyone was joyful and friendly and I was immediately welcomed with warm, bright smiles…At lunch the boys and girls sat separately, but it was basically a regular cafeteria. The teachers passed out Capri Suns,…chips and sandwiches on white bread…When we sat down to eat the girls smiled and asked questions. They laughed about Facebook and chatted about school, telling me their ambitions to become doctors, like mine to become a vet…After lunch we all went outside and played basketball. The students were very good. One of them could even dunk!”
“The most interesting part for me was observing one of their five daily sessions of prayer…I thought they each had a prayer mat, but it was one big soft carpet instead…They repeated a sequence of folding their arms, bowing and kneeling. While they did this, the Imam (spiritual leader) chanted prayers for them to hear in Arabic…When listening to the Imam speak, even though he didn’t have very good English, I respected him greatly, and admired him. His certainty in his ways and religion inspired me…”
“I’m glad I went because it gave me a new light on Muslim culture. Participating in their prayers and learning new things was a great experience…I think that the Muslim faith is a kind and merciful one. It is portrayed differently thn it really is. This trip helped me gain perspective on religion…”
“We learned that not all Muslims are the way the press makes them out to be. And their god, Allah, is, in fact, peaceful, righteous and forgiving. I am very glad we went to this Islamic center because I can understand Americans who have not been educated feeling hostile toward Muslims, but if you learn a little about them, you would realize that there is little reason to be afraid.”