ABILENE HOSTS WORLD VISITORS
Dr. Mohammad Al-Sayyad, an Abilene physician, leads Juma’a Prayers
By LORETTA FULTON
The theme for a two-week gathering in Abilene of people from various ethnicities and countries is “Hospitality and the Stranger,” but the group, hosted by Hardin-Simmons University, is learning that in Abilene at least there aren’t any strangers, just plenty of hospitality.
The group of about 25 people, representing nine nations, started their journey together on July 14 and will end it on July 28. The session is sponsored by Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion (CEDAR), which has facilitated more than 40 similar programs all over the world since 2003.
In Abilene, they are attending lectures at HSU, including some led by CEDAR founder Dr. Adam Seligman, a religion professor at Boston University, and visiting various places in town such as the International Rescue Committee, Love & Care Ministries, Curtis House Cultural Center, churches, and other sites of interest.
At the end of the first week, the participants agreed that they are finding what they were looking for in the Abilene experience. Emil Nasritdinov, a student from Kyrgyzstan, was pleased with the experience halfway through it.
“It’s stimulating in terms of all the intellectual conversation,” he said.
On Friday, July 20, the group attended the Juma’a or Friday prayers that are held in a prayer room for Muslim students and for members of the community at McMurry University. The prayers were led by Dr. Mohammad Al-Sayyad, a Syrian-born physician who has practiced in Abilene for 20 years.
“Thank you all very much for just coming and joining us,” Al-Sayyad said to the visitors.
Women in the group covered their heads with scarves provided by Marty CashBurless, McMurry chaplain and stood or sat at the back of the room.
Male Muslims at various times stood, knelt and bowed, as Al-Sayyad said the prayers, first in Arabic and then in English. At the proper times, the participants responded.
After the prayers, Al-Sayyad answered questions and tried to clear up misunderstandings about Islam. When the discussion turned toward radical Muslims and terrorism, one of the members of the CEDAR team, Chad Moore, responded.
“Far too often,” Moore said, “we index difference with dangerous.”
Moore and his wife, Kendra Moore, are 2014 HSU graduates and both are working on doctorates at Boston University. Moore, who was in the Honors Program at HSU, contacted the head of the program, psychology professor Tom Copeland over a year ago about HSU hosting CEDAR.
Al-Sayyad noted that the terrorists the student asked about are radicals who are not practicing Muslim as taught in the Quran. There are radicals in all religions, Al-Sayyad said, including Christianity. But that doesn’t negate the true meaning of the religions.
“Faith, I believe, has all the same principles,” Al-Sayyad said, including forbidding taking a life.
The conversation turned out to be exactly what CEDAR is about–engaging with difference and religion. McMurry University got some pushback from alumni and from the community when it opened its Muslim prayer room a couple of years ago, said Mark Waters, a religion professor at McMurry and director of international education.
Some alumni threatened to end financial support for McMurry, Waters said, and others wouldn’t let their children attend. But McMurry President Sandra Harper, stood firm, Waters said.
“This is who we are–we’re going to be hospitable,” Harper told those who disapproved.
The prayer room has turned out to be a success, hosting students and Muslims from the community. It currently is in the community center of a student apartment building across the street from campus, but Waters hopes eventually a bigger space will be available for an interfaith prayer room.
The prayer room gained the support of the Texas Methodist Foundation, Waters said, and is an extension of the United Methodist Church’s emphasis on radical hospitality.
“We are hospitable to people who are like us,” Waters said, “and people who may not be like us.”