NORFOLK, Virginia – Hosting regular holiday dinners and informal chats over coffee, a Norfolk mosque has succeeded in creating friendship between the Muslim community and their neighbors, in their mission to educate the wider community about Islam.
“It’s harder to hate someone when you know them,” said Saher Mirza, The Virginian-Pilotreported.
“Our goal is to put a face on being Muslim.”
Mirza is one of the Muslim women who befriended Anne Zobel last winter.
It started when Zobel stood outside the Tidewater Islamic Center holding a sign that said, “I am a Christian and I support Muslims.”
The Muslim women, who were watching curiously behind windows, invited her into a cup of coffee.
The next week, Zobel, 54, brought her husband to the mosque. Then she brought a friend. Then she brought her priest and his wife.
“Our neighbors at the mosque are our friends at the mosque now,” Zobel said.
The interaction initiated a series of events in which the Islamic center opened its doors to neighbors of all faiths.
They first held meet and greets on Fridays. Later in February, they had a coffee and conversation event, and 250 people showed up.
After the huge success, the mosque opened its doors to a flood of community events and a fundraiser for refugees.
“This past year was unprecedented,” Mirza said.
“My suggestion to people is come talk to us if you have a question. You are not going to offend us,” Mirza said.
The mosque open doors policy was widely welcomed by the larger community.
Martha and John Stewart were among the people who came to show their support for Muslims against rising hateful atmosphere.
John Stewart, 72, said he came to the mosque because he felt “a sense of wanting to push back against what seemed to be a fairly growing and callous approach to refugees in the United States.”
“What I experienced was a whole group of people who met me with a ready smile and a desire to be understood, and with welcoming arms for me to understand their culture,” he said.
The couple formed bonds with refugee families.
“If it hadn’t been for the events going on at the mosque, and other events, then I would just be going about my daily life and reading the paper and having certain thoughts about Islam as a whole,” said Martha Stewart, 67.
Marianne Manning, 70, also went to the mosque to show her support.
“I think the mosque – they are trying so hard to get people to meet them, to understand,” she said.
“I think it’s just wonderful that they’re opening themselves up, which is pretty scary under a lot of the circumstances right now.”
She also invited Mirza to her Episcopal church in Virginia Beach, both for services and to answer questions.
“At the end of the day, humanity is the biggest common denominator,” Mirza said.